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When suitcases or carry-ons at US airports can’t be traced back to their owners, they might head off to another destination: the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama. TPG Contributor Michele Herrmann spoke with the center’s Brand Ambassador Brenda Cantrell to learn more – and find out how to prevent your bag from going there. (All photos courtesy of the Unclaimed Baggage Center.)
The Unclaimed Baggage Center was started in 1970 when founder Doyle Owens took a pick-up truck to a bus company in Washington, DC and purchased a load of unclaimed bags for $300, intending them for resale. Over the next four decades, the center would grow to develop exclusive business contracts with domestic carriers nationwide and sell just about any item found inside unclaimed luggage or cargo at this family-owned store than takes up an entire city block.
How Bags Are Acquired
According to Brand Ambassador Brenda Cantrell, over 99.9 percent of the time, airlines are successful in matching the right person with the right bag in their required 90-day research period. “Less than one-half percent of bags are ultimately unclaimed,” she added.
If the 90-day period has passed with no match, the center then can purchase unclaimed bags and send out its transportation fleet to bring them to Scottsboro. Along with unclaimed bags, the center also buys checked-in bags that for whatever reason didn’t get reunited with their owners after the search process ended.
When anything is found onboard in an overhead compartment or tucked into a front-seat pocket after a plane has flown on, “those items are considered [to be] lost and found,” explained Cantrell. “And it’s the passenger’s responsibility because they didn’t put [that item] into the system; they kept it with them.”
Properly ID-ing Your Bag
A bag could get mishandled or misplaced for all sorts of reasons, such as being torn, not having an identification tag or having one that lacks accurate passenger information. To prevent this, Cantrell has some helpful tips to offer.
First, pack something visible inside your bag such as a business card or a piece of paper with your name and phone number in a location or two where it can be easily seen. Or maybe even pack something specific like a small toy that can help identify your bag. Check the bag’s zippers to make sure they work fine. And be certain that nothing is sticking out of your bag that could get it caught in a conveyor belt system.
“And by all means know what you put in your bag,” advised Cantrell. “Take pictures of your suitcase with your smartphone because they’re going to ask you what size, what brand and what color [your bag is] because they categorize them that way in their booking [system].”
What’s for Sale
Once luggage arrives at the Unclaimed Baggage Center, their contents get sorted for reselling, recycling, donation or disposal. Clothing goes straight to the wash, as the center is one of the largest dry cleaning/laundry facilities in Alabama, handling over 20,000 pieces daily.
Merchandise is priced at 20-50 percent less than the original retail value and can reflect what passengers pack: books, sports equipment, fine jewelry and electronics. “It’s definitely a slice of what’s going on in America, as smartphones and tablets have become the norm for people to have,” said Cantrell. “It’s also become the norm in our store to have them.”
Some items are, to say the least, unexpected: suits of armor, a Ferrari engine, taxidermy items and a suitcase full of cheese have all found their way to the center.
More than half of goods that aren’t designated for the sales floor go to another market. Through its “Reclaimed for Good” program, the center works with national and international charities to donate reusable items such as clothing and medical equipment. Eyeglasses go to the Lions Club First Sight Program, and broken wheelchairs head first to a facility in Louisiana for repairs, then are distributed to children and adults worldwide.
Personal objects also get proper handling. Military medals are given to an area veteran’s museum, and funeral urns are equally treated with dignity. “If we can’t figure out from some kind of marking for the funeral home it came from, we will dispose of it properly,” said Cantrell.
Though one person’s loss might be another’s gain, Cantrell noted that the focus is on making the best of the situation. A $7 pair of drugstore reading glasses might not be a huge deal to those who lost them compared to those who receive them. “We really extend ourselves in that capacity to make sure those items end up with people who need them the most.”
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