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Lost and found: The Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama

By: Maxine Sheppard

December 7, 2018

Baggage carousel © Shutterstock

Baggage carousel © Shutterstock

Missing in action

No one wants to be the last person standing in the baggage reclaim hall while an empty conveyor belt goes round.

But if your luggage does get ‘mishandled’ (airline jargon for lost or delayed) there’s an extremely high chance you’ll be quickly reunited.

Here at Virgin Atlantic our mishandling rate of 0.7% is a tiny fraction of the more than 6.4 million bags we carry each year. The vast majority of those (around 98.8%) will be reunited with their owners, and we’ll always do everything in our power to get you and your bag back together as speedily as possible.

If you report a missing suitcase, we’ll enter all the identifying details into the WorldTracer system, which will then search continuously for a match. Happily, your bag will almost certainly be either on the next flight or found elsewhere in the airport so it’s exceptionally rare that any luggage would be declared ‘irretrievably lost’.

According to the most recent baggage report by SITA – makers of the WorldTracer system – there were 4.08 billion scheduled airline passengers in 2017, with 5.57 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. This is the lowest level ever recorded and a drop of more than 70% since 2007, in a period where passenger numbers climbed by over 60%. In the end, only a miniscule percentage of missing bags are ultimately deemed lost.

But that still left 22.7 million bags unaccounted for globally last year, so where did they all end up? For bags that go missing in the USA, the answer is the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama. I took a detour from nearby Atlanta to see what it was all about.

Unclaimed Baggage Center, Alabama © Maxine Sheppard

finders keepers

Around 140 miles northwest of Atlanta, the Unclaimed Baggage Center (UBC) lies on a quiet stretch of highway in the unassuming town of Scottsboro, Alabama. It’s one of the top tourist attractions in the state.

The center was founded by local man Doyle Owens, who had a lightbulb moment after purchasing $300 worth of lost luggage from a bus company in 1970 and selling it to friends at a table sale. Over the next four decades he developed his idea into a thriving family-run business and a major employer for the area. Owens died in 2016 at the age of 85 and the company is now run by his son Bryan.

The UBC has agreements with airlines to purchase literally every lost suitcase in the nation. It processes thousands of bags daily, earmarking the most saleable items for its 40,000 sq ft retail floor.

Clothes are laundered in-house in Alabama’s largest dry cleaning facility. Jewellery and watches are appraised by experts. Stacks of electronic items are tested and wiped of existing data following a protocol set by the US Department of Defense. Books are dusted, piles of sunglasses and spectacles are buffed, and the most ubiquitous items – suitcases and bags – are checked for damaged wheels, locks and zips before being given another chance to fly around the world.

All in all, around 7,000 quality products are added to the store’s inventory per day, while more than half the remaining stock is donated to good causes via the UBC’s Reclaimed for Good programme.

Giving back is part of the company’s ethos, and hundreds of thousands of items are repurposed, reconditioned or given away each year, including broken wheelchairs, medical supplies, eyeglasses and special hand-painted suitcases for foster children moving to new homes.

In the local community, families who suffer an unfortunate event like a house fire or flooding are offered the chance to refurnish their properties and wardrobes with donated stock. If there’s a use for an item, UBC will find it, and only the truly unusable stuff will be disposed of.

Where to begin? Racks of clothes at the Unclaimed Baggage Center © Maxine Sheppard

dive in

Entering the store is like walking into the world’s most organised jumble sale, minus the elbowing. It’s all slightly overwhelming and I don’t know where to start, but I’m lured into the thick of it when I spy a few old retro synths and guitars.

All around me are display cabinets filled with mobile phones, e-readers, headphones and bluetooth speakers, as well as reconditioned tablets and laptops, and every type of cable under the sun. Rows of men’s and women’s clothing stretch as far as the eye can see – including a vast lingerie section – and there’s a separate room full of expensive, tragically unclaimed bridalwear. Several Vera Wang dresses have been snapped up over the years.

Some of the most popular items include big brand trainers and designer handbags, with buttery soft leather satchels fetching hundreds of dollars apiece – though everything’s 20 to 50 per cent cheaper than typical retail prices. Expensive jewellery and watches are highly prized. You’ll need to be quick or lucky to beat the professional dealers who check in daily hoping to snag the latest bargain Rolex or diamond necklace.

Long-time employee Jean tells me she’s already sold a $3,000 ring earlier in the week, not to mention the $64,000 Rolex watch she sold in the past – the most valuable item ever to pass through the center’s doors.

For Jean, it’s moments like these that keep things interesting after 25 years in the job. That, and the camaraderie she enjoys with her colleagues. “This place is like family to me,” she says, in her soft southern drawl. “I’ll be 76 this year and my sons want me to retire, but I want to stay working here as long as I can. You never know what will arrive each day, and I get to meet people from all over the world. Like y’all!”

Best of all is the UBC ‘museum’ – a wall display of the wackiest stuff they’ve found. There’s a unicycle, a set of tribal breastplates, a handmade replica of a British navy warship, and a xylophone belonging to Neil Diamond. Round the corner are a couple of vintage trumpets, a leather-bound French newspaper from 1934, and a pair of antique wooden snow shoes.

Over the years the center has unpacked a full suit of armour, a 40.95 carat natural emerald and a pair of moose antlers, as well as a shrunken head and an engraved headstone that was purchased and turned into a coffee table.

But not everything weird and wonderful is kept. A space shuttle camera was sent straight back to NASA, and a $250,000 military guidance system was promptly returned to the Navy. And for some reason a live rattlesnake and box of 50 vacuum-packed frogs never quite made it to the shop floor.

A unicycle at the Unclaimed Baggage Center, Alabama

If you’re road-tripping round these parts, it’s worth dropping by to see what you might find. Where else can you come for a cheap USB cable and leave with a 4,000 year old mummified hawk? As founder Doyle Owens was fond of saying, there’s no other place like it in the USA.

Virgin Atlantic operates a daily flight to Atlanta from London Heathrow. You can drive to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in around three hours. Visit alabama.travel for more tips and local travel ideas.

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Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.

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