Losing a suitcase during our travels is an annoyance, but what actually happens to those bags that never get reunited with passengers?

23 June, 2020

Most of us regular corporate travellers have learnt either due to our own misfortune or those of a colleague that checking in a bag is a risk. Although we will try our hardest to pack everything into our carry on, changing airline luggage policies and current hand baggage restrictions at many airlines mean that sometimes we have little choice. Then we are playing the risky game of baggage roulette.

How often you travel makes no difference, it’s always a nervous moment when you are waiting at the baggage carousel for your suitcase to emerge from behind the rubber curtain and stutter its way towards you. When it does that feeling of relief is like little else. As you walk away you even have a wry snigger at those still stuck waiting knowing just what is in store, happy that it is not you.

While many airlines are using technology to help ease the pain, when you bag doesn’t appear, panic and annoyance are two immediate emotions as you realise you have to queue up at lost luggage to make a report while you worry whether you’ll ever see your possessions again.

According to SITA’s Baggage IT Insights report for 2019, some 25.4 million bags were ‘mishandled’ in 2019 which equates to about 5.60 bags per 1000 passengers. Of those, around 77% were delayed but ultimately reunited with their owners, while 5% were lost altogether – that equates to 1.27 million lost bags in one year.

There are a number of reasons why a bag will go missing, including errors in ticketing, loading and tagging as well as being mishandled on arrival, failure to load on departure and issues with space-weight restrictions.

If you are one of the lucky ones, the bag will be found and make its way to you within 24 hours but for the unlucky 5% you will need to spend some time attempting to track down the bag and when that fails and the airline finally admits they have no idea where it is – although those won’t be the words they use – then you have to claim via your insurance and maybe a little from the airline itself – that’s a minefield in itself.

But those 1.27 million bags don’t just disappear into thin air, so where do they go? In the United Kingdom, close to London’s Heathrow Airport hub there is a huge warehouse, apparently the size of a small town, where these ‘lost’ bags are stored for about three months. After that the vast majority are given to auction houses to sell off.

It’s a bit like a lottery. You bid on a bag having no idea what’s inside and you could find it stuffed with dirty laundry or maybe strike lucky and find some beautiful clothes that are exactly your fit or maybe some useful pieces of equipment. You only get to see the bag from the outside so you have to take an educated guess as to whether you think it belongs to a man, woman or child, but even that can be deceptive.

Increasingly the bags are now opened and the contents sorted for auction in lots. Any personal equipment will be wiped and sold separately or in lots. A quick Internet search reveals lots of companies that handle auctions in the UK, with a range from individual lots to the purchase of entire bags.

In the US a new online shop has just opened up where you can buy lost luggage items for between 50% and 80% below the retail value. UnclaimedBaggage.com receives lost luggage from airlines and other transportation companies which they firstly sort into items that can be resold as well as some that are repurposed via a number of charity organisations. Clothing is cleaned and all electronic equipment is tested and wiped clean of personal information.

The company was originally started in Alabama by a young entrepreneur who bought a pick up truck and a load of unclaimed luggage from Trailways Bus Line. Over the years the business expanded and is now the only lost bag warehouse store for all airlines and transport companies in the US. Thousands of people have visited the unclaimed luggage centre to bag themselves a bargain but now that opportunity has been opened up to anyone in the country thanks to the internet.

Among the unusual items that have been discovered in lost luggage over the years were an aluminised fire suit, a bear pelt packed in salt and a camera from the space shuttle. Currently on offer are items including a set of Moroccan bongo drums, a spearfishing pole and a pelt quiver and arrows, together with an untold number of fedora hats.

So while it may be fun to grab yourself a bargain that some other poor soul lost while on their travels, the better idea is to do everything you can to keep your luggage safe. The single most important thing to do is to label your bag securely with your name and contact details, both outside and inside the bag. It is surprising how many people don’t do that.

If you want to be double sure then you can take matters into your own hands and track your own luggage using a GPS or mobile network tag. The device sits inside your bag and broadcasts its location from anywhere in the world to a companion smartphone app. Makers include LugLoc, Smart Unit, Tile and Trakdot. Then all you have to do is persuade the airline of your bag’s whereabouts so you can be reunited.

The International Air Transport Association’s Resolution 753 on baggage tracking is part of the IATA end-to-end baggage programme that aims to improve efficiencies in baggage handling operations. It came into effect in Jun-2018 and requires IATA airlines to keep tabs on every item of baggage from journey start to journey finish or, in its own words, “maintain an accurate inventory of baggage by monitoring the acquisition and delivery of baggage”.

Over the past year, an increasing number of airlines and airports have started to introduce tracking at key points in the journey – check-in, loading onto the aircraft, transfers and arrival – to improve baggage management and further reduce the chances of a bag being mishandled. But, bags still fail to reach their destination as they should.

If you are one of the those unlucky passengers to never see your bag again then you do have a last chance of getting reunited with your belongings and can attempt to buy your items back from one of these auction sites. Good luck!