Count your blessings if an airline has never lost your luggage before, because that’s the worst way to begin or end a vacation.
Granted, it doesn’t happen that often—less than 1 percent of checked luggage gets lost in transit, and somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of those lost bags make their way back to their owners within two days.
However, have you ever wondered what happens to the luggage that never finds its way home? It obviously doesn’t just vanish. In fact, you might even see your favorite shirt or pair of shoes once again after all—it might just be someone else wearing them.
Have you ever seen a stranger wearing something you once lost?
So, you were unfortunate enough to lose your luggage for good. Perhaps you accepted your fate right away, or maybe you duked it out with the airport to make sure you exhausted all of your options. Still, it did nothing, and your luggage is gone. But, wait… did you just walk by someone wearing your family reunion t-shirt from 1994 that was packed in that very suitcase you lost?
There’s absolutely no way that anyone else could have a shirt like that, so how’d they get it if your luggage somehow drifted off into the world, never to be seen again?
Because it didn’t.
Lost luggage that never makes its way back to its owner usually ends up in Scottsboro, Alabama, at the Unclaimed Baggage Center—just imagine a mix between a thrift store and a lost-and-found center. It’s essentially a superstore of lost items that spans a massive 40,000 square feet, and it’s been there since around 1970.
The lost luggage emporium was the brainchild of then–part-time insurance salesman Doyle Owens, who came up with the idea after he decided to buy some unclaimed luggage from a nearby bus station and sell anything interesting he found inside.
His business eventually expanded to include lost luggage from airlines and, ever since then, his store has been packed to the gills with items that frustrated travelers believe they’ll never see again.
How does that even work?
Your lost baggage legally belongs to the airline you were flying with after 90 days. In some cases, people just stop searching for it because the airline compensated them fairly for their items but, other times, a person isn’t given a bag they claim as theirs because they weren’t able to accurately describe what was inside of it. Whatever the case may be, these bags all end up going into warehouses in whichever state they got left behind, and that’s where the Unclaimed Baggage Center comes in.
The store actually has an exclusive contract with airlines for the unclaimed bags, which they periodically pick up using 18-wheelers. You’d think with the seemingly endless amount of unclaimed items the store buys that the airlines would make a ton of money on these items alone, but it actually helps them break even—the money they get from the Unclaimed Baggage Center is enough to help airlines offset the money they deal out to people for losing their luggage in the first place.
Once the center picks up a haul, workers at the store sift through everything; they typically end up putting approximately 7,000 new items onto its shelves each day.
Roughly one-third of what they get is sold at the store, another third is usually donated to charity, and another third gets sent off to be recycled.
It might sound like it’s not that different from a thrift store…
But it is. Remember, these aren’t things that people gladly threw out of their homes to make room for new clothes or gadgets. These are all things that people considered such an integral part of their lives that they had to pack them on a trip, however short it was.
You might find jewelry, artwork, electronics, and even designer clothing.
“You might find a wedding dress at a thrift store, but you wouldn’t find a Vera Wang wedding dress,” said store spokeswoman Brenda Cantrell. “And we’ve had several of those.”
The store also has its own museum that houses all of the strangest things that have ever come through its doors, including a Jim Henson puppet and a six-foot-tall papier-mâché Tinker Bell figure.
The life cycle of lost luggage isn’t the only strange thing that goes on behind the scenes at airports.
We’re sure you’ve gone on a trip and had some sort of airport experience that made you wonder what was going on. To answer questions about delayed flights, why you sometimes sit on the runway for so long, and even just how often those planes get cleaned, the airline workers of Reddit took to the internet to share their insider knowledge, and let’s just say you might never want to fly again.
How dirty is an airplane, really?
“I worked for Southwest as a flight attendant. Those blankets and pillows? Yeah, those just get refolded and stuffed back in the bins between flights. Only fresh ones I ever saw were on an originating first flight in the morning in a provisioning city. Also, if you have ever spread your peanuts on your tray and eaten, or really just touched your tray at all, you have more than likely ingested baby poo. I saw more dirty diapers laid out on those trays than food. And those trays, yeah, never saw them cleaned or sanitized once.”—Reddit user melhow44
Believe it or not, this was actually partly confirmed by flight attendant and HuffPost blogger, Sarah Keagle. On her particular airline, Keagle said that only the first passengers of the day will receive fresh blankets in coach, and those tray tables are cleaned just once each day, usually at night after an entire day’s worth of people have used them.
Oxygen masks do work…but only for a little while.
“If the oxygen masks drop down, you only have about 15 minutes of oxygen from the point of pulling them down. However, that is more than enough time for the pilot to take us to a lower altitude where you can breathe normally.”-Reddit user jezalenko
Thankfully, it is true that getting to a breathable altitude usually takes only 10 to 20 minutes, although this does depend on the altitude of the plane at the time of depressurization. However, once this happens, you can fly somewhat soundly knowing it’s the pilot’s goal to find the closest airport to land the plane.
The pilot truly is in charge of the whole plane.
“The captain has almost limitless authority when the doors are closed. He is allowed to arrest people, write fines and even take the will of a dying passenger.”—Reddit user vergadays
This isn’t entirely true in the sense that a pilot can’t actually legally put someone under arrest, but they can put someone in restraints and turn them over to authorities once they land. Otherwise, they have ultimate authority over what happens in the aircraft, so it’s probably best not to cross them, whether they can actually arrest you or not.
Your luggage isn’t exactly handled with care.
“Your bags are thrown and dropped very frequently. Then they are put in tiny cargo compartments, where 50-150 other bags are set on top of them. Then they slide around until you land. Then they are dropped and thrown and finally, you retrieve them.”—Reddit user MiltonO89
This probably isn’t a secret to most people, but the fate of your luggage goes far beyond how it is handled on the runway. Thinking about it being shoved into a plane with other heavy bags piled on top and slamming around during the flight might make you reconsider packing anything fragile.