As frequent globe-trotters and travel writers, we have no shortage of nightmarish lost-luggage tales—and neither, it seems, do our readers. Take Geri Mitchell of Seattle, for example, whose bag went missing for the entirety of her four-day stay in Hawaii for a wedding. The day she arrived back home, a Maui airport employee called to inform her that her belongings had been sitting in the lost-luggage office there for a week. "For five days, not one person who works there bothered to read the very obvious ID tags and call me!" a still-incredulous Mitchell noted. The war-story winner, though, has to be Michelle Buchecker of Chicago, whose suitcase vanished during a six-day, multi-city business trip in 1993. She had to buy new clothes when she landed. Oh, and the missing bag? She never saw it again.
Buchecker is among the tens of thousands of air travelers each year to have their luggage lost forever. But it's not like the bags slip through a hole in the space-time continuum (like, say, socks in a dryer). It's simply that, if a suitcase can't be reunited with its rightful owner within 90 days, the contents may be donated to charity—or, more likely, shipped off to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama, a sprawling, 40,000-square-foot store where eager shoppers come by the busload to snap up lost treasures (maybe even yours) at bargain-basement prices.
So how does it get to that point? Though none of the following four scenarios are common (last year, airlines only mishandled 12.07 bags for every 1,000 passengers) they are among the most frequent reasons bags are lost, according to various airline officials and flyers'-rights groups.
Cause: When you check your bag, it gets tagged with an oddly printed, illegible routing label—or a legible label gets snagged and torn off your bag shortly after being tagged. Adding insult to injury, it's a new suitcase, and you've forgotten to fill in the cool, leather-bound identification card.
Effect: No one notices the missing/unreadable tag until the bag has gone through TSA and arrived in the hectic distribution area. Because there's no way to tell where the bag should be headed, it just stays put. After arriving at your destination and waiting in vain for your bag to appear on the carousel, you file a report at the local baggage-service counter, providing a solid description of the suitcase. You're told it's going to take a bit of searching, so you continue on without it.
Scenario #2: You forget to pick up your luggage upon landing
Cause: Maybe you're distracted by an urgent text upon landing at home, and head straight for a taxi. Maybe you're weighed down with heavy carry-on bags and forget you checked one more. Or perhaps you're a tad buzzed from in-flight cocktails. Whatever the reason, you walk straight past the carousel and leave the airport without collecting your generic black roller bag (with no I.D. tag, natch), and don't realize it until you've arrived at home.
Effect: Eventually, an airline employee takes the bag off the carousel and stores it in the carrier's unclaimed baggage room. You call the airline and they put you through to an airport-based staff member who takes down a description and begins a search.
Scenario #3: The attendant types in the wrong destination code
Cause: When you hand over your luggage, the bag-check attendant accidentally inputs the wrong destination code. So off you go to LGA—while your bag heads to LAX.
Effect: When you arrive to your destination and your bag does not, you file a lost-baggage report, giving a detailed description. The agent files it into the system and other agents are notified to be on the lookout in case an unclaimed bag fitting your description arrives at their location.Your suitcase sits in your airline carrier's holding area waiting to be properly identified. If it's tagged with your identification details, employees will most likely figure out where your bag was supposed to go and eventually send it there (or at least call to inform you it's been found). If it has no ID tag, it will sit—and sit—with the other unclaimed luggage.
Scenario #4: Your bag is loaded onto the wrong plane
Cause: You check your bag and, moments after it rides out of view on the conveyor belt, human error steps in: An employee places it on the wrong baggage cart, and, as a result, it gets loaded onto the wrong plane.
THE LIFE OF A LOST BAG
What happens when you and your suitcase get separated? At what point should you give up hope? Find out what your bag is doing once it joins the ranks of the missing.
Week 1: The first week your bag is separated from you, it's most likely going to just hang out in its arrival airport, biding its time in the airline's local lost-baggage holding area. In most cases, you'll be dealing with an airline agent based at the airport of your destination, who will ask you to fill out a form describing your suitcase and provide you with a file reference number. Still feeling quite hopeful, you'll tell yourself that your bag was just delayed for some reason.
Week 2 to week 12: After five to seven days, bags without identified owners are moved to a large warehouse, usually in the same city as the airline carrier's major hub. Bags are organized by physical characteristics (color, size, shape, type), rather than by date of travel. During this period it is imperative that you file a lost-baggage claim form (available to download on most airlines' websites) if you ever want to see your belongings again. Be sure to give the most detailed description of the bag and its contents to the airport representative assisting you on your case and work with personnel at the warehouse to try to locate your bag (and no—you cannot go to the warehouse to conduct your own search). Now for the bad news: "If your bag is lost for more than seven days, your chance of ever seeing it again grows very slim," said Kate Hanni, executive director of FlyersRights.org, a consumer advocate group based in Napa, California and Washington, D.C.
Week 13: After 90 days, you can kiss your bag (well, air-kiss it, at least) good-bye. By this time, your lost-luggage claim will have most likely been settled, and legally, the airlines can get can get rid of your belongings. So what does that mean? Some airlines (including Southwest and Virgin America) donate the lost items to charity. But most sell them off for a few dollars a pound to the aforementioned Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, where employees prepare new acquisitions for resale by unpacking bags, laundering clothes, polishing up jewelry and electronics, and tossing half-used deodorant and toothpaste. Items are divided up into sales departments, including clothing (men's, women's and children's), electronics, books, "jewelry & collectibles," and, of course, luggage—mountains of it. A steady river of goods flows into this place, with upwards of 7,000 newly arrived items placed onto the floor each day.