Of the millions of people who take to the skies in commercial airliners each year, a small number of passengers don't receive their luggage upon arrival. A small number, when dealing with figures in the millions, adds up. Lost or unclaimed luggage is a serious issue for airlines and passengers. For those bags that don't get picked up, measures are in place to ensure they eventually find their rightful owner. And when those measures fail, there's a place in the Heart of Dixie where the unclaimed property goes to market.
If a piece of air travel luggage doesn't end up in the passenger's hands at the baggage claim after the flight, it doesn't necessarily mean it's unclaimed. It may have been delayed or even stolen. Most often, it's delayed due to mishandling, which results in an inadvertent rerouting or a similar baggage handling issue such as baggage ending up on the wrong carousel. In these cases, the luggage is located by the airline and delivered back to the passenger, usually within five days or less.
Airlines have 90 days to find and reunite lost baggage with the owner. If they can't find and return it, a lost baggage claim is paid out to the customer. If the luggage is in the airline's possession after the 90-day period and can't be returned to the owner, it's sold off to a third-party buyer. This means it ends up on the open market and is put up for sale in a second-hand retail environment, a million t-shirts, laptops, or even crazy items like a live rattlesnake or shrunken heads have been recovered in lost bags.
Each airline has its own policy concerning luggage, but all airlines operating in the U.S. abide by what is commonly referred to as the "Passenger Bill of Rights" implemented by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Concerning lost luggage, the DOT states that an airline must refund the fee for carrying a bag if the bag isn't returned to you. Furthermore, the airline must provide reasonable compensation for the loss, damage or delay of your baggage.
Most of the baggage that the airlines can't reunite with their owners, whether lost in New York or Los Angeles, ultimately ends up for sale in one spot -- the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama. This large retail market is open to the public, who show up in droves to find deals on merchandise from unclaimed bags. Along with being a marketplace with unclaimed items selling for prices below retail value, the Unclaimed Baggage Center has become a tourist attraction in the state. There's even a small museum on-site showcasing some of the items deemed "too weird or wonderful to sell," such as rare Egyptian artifacts and a puppet made by famed puppeteer and Muppet creator Jim Henson.
One way to keep track of baggage best, especially on domestic flights, is to not check-in your baggage but to carry on instead, remember checked bags must go through TSA and meet cabin requirements. The airline industry frequently has unexpected layovers which lead to baggage loss or in rare occasions, thefts. One additional strategy is to use ios functions like “find my iPhone”, or air tags to help aid in finding lost baggage.