Thanks to advances in bag-tracking technology, the amount of checked luggage that fails to reach its destination is now less than half a per cent. But given airlines carried more than four billion bags last year, that still means more than 20 million bags went unclaimed. What happened to them? Where did they end up? The unexpected answer is Scottsboro, Alabama.
Located 165 kilometres northeast of Birmingham, the sleepy town of Scottsboro is home to the only store in the US that buys and sells unclaimed luggage. Every day thousands of bags arrive at the Unclaimed Baggage Centre to be inspected and sorted. Clothes deemed worthy of sale are cleaned in the state's largest dry-cleaning facility (it launders 50,000 items a month) and all electronic items are tested and wiped of data. About 7000 good-as-new items are transferred daily to the centre's nearby retail store, which covers an entire city block.
At this point I should declare that as someone who's allergic to shopping (with a particular aversion to rummaging), I was extremely reluctant to set foot in here. I had nightmarish visions of people with that maniacal bargain hunter glint in their eyes rifling furiously through huge bins of unsorted clothes. Of course, it's nothing like that at all. The store is spacious and tidy, with separate sections for men's and women's clothing, electronics, sports equipment and books. There's a large jewellery department (with its own expert appraiser), a "formal" area with ball gowns and wedding dresses, and even a section containing pre-loved women's lingerie.
In general, items are sold for about 50 per cent of what they would have cost new. Branded luxury goods still command a premium (there are leather handbags for $US300 and a pair of Moschino men's boat shoes for $US99) but there are cheaper options too, particularly in the bins of assorted cables and gadgetry in the electronics department.
As expected, I soon reach my browsing threshold so instead turn my attention to the store's "museum" – a wall-mounted montage of unusual items that have turned up in bags over the years. Some of the more bizarre examples include an Egyptian burial mask, a camera from the space shuttle (since returned to NASA) and 50 vacuum-packed frogs.
The centre was founded in 1970 by Doyle Owens and is now run by his son Bryan. Through its Reclaimed for Good program, it gives away millions of dollars of clothing each year and works with charities including Medical Mission Aid and the Salvation Army. A particularly touching initiative is Luv Luggage, where old suitcases are hand-painted and given to children moving into new foster homes.
Every day at 2.30pm, there's a live in-store bag unveil, where a customer gets to open an unprocessed bag and decide what gets kept, donated and thrown out. Presumably, it's already been checked for vacuum-packed frogs.
While looking around the jewellery department, I get chatting to Jean, a 76-year-old employee who's worked here for 25 years. She proudly tells me she sold the store's most expensive item – a Rolex Platinum watch worth $US64,000. "I love it here," she says, in her sing-song Alabama accent. "You never know what you're gonna find and I get to meet folks from all over the world."
Rob McFarland was a guest of Alabama Tourism, Delta Air Lines and Brand USA.
Delta Air Lines flies daily to Birmingham, Alabama, via Los Angeles. See delta.com
The Unclaimed Baggage Center is at 509 W Willow Street, Scottsboro, Alabama; open Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm; Saturday, 8am to 7pm. Closed Sundays. See unclaimedbaggage.com