What Happens To Passengers’ Lost Luggage?

The odds of losing a bag while flying are falling year on year, with just 1 – 3% of all bags not ending up where they should be. The odds of that bag being lost forever is even more slim, as most are reunited with the owners within a couple of days. But what about those bags that are never returned? Simple Flying takes a look at where they all end up.

Lost Luggage
What happens to bags that are lost forever? Photo: Pixabay

Previously Simple Flying’s Chris told the story of how he became separated from, and subsequently reunited with, his luggage. Our writer Jay also had a brush with missing bags, but thankfully he too had them returned soon after. But what about those passengers who never do get their bags back? Where do they go, and what happens to the contents? Let’s find out!

The odds of losing a bag

There’s nothing worse than standing by a carousel, watching other happy travelers leaving with their bags while yours still fails to appear. Mishandling bags is still a major issue for the aviation industry, with approximately 24.8m a year going missing, according to Sita.

Although the situation on mishandled bags is improving, down from 46.9m in 2007, there is still much to be done. Some airlines are investing in new tech to drive down the numbers of lost bags, such as Delta who now use RFID tracking chips to monitor the bag’s progress through the system. For Delta, this has paid off, as it was named the US airline least likely to lose a bag in a 2018 study.

Delta checked baggage
Delta is least likely to lose a bag. Photo: Delta

Statistics show that most cases of lost bags originate from issues with missed connections, particularly in the US and Western Europe. However, standards in baggage handling vary from country to country and between airports, so even on a relatively straightforward itinerary, it can be possible to mislay your bag.

According to the Sita research, the top reasons for losing a bag are:

  • Transfer mishandling – 46%
  • Ticketing error – 16%
  • Failure to load – 16%
  • Airport/customs – 9%
  • Arrival mishandling – 5%
  • Tagging error – 5%
  • Loading error – 3%

Bags that are missing are tracked using the World Tracer system. Usually, they appear somewhere within a day or two and go on to be reunited with their owners. However, in around 5% of cases, the bags never come back. What happens to these bags?

Bags that are lost forever

Airlines allow 21 days to track a bag until it is considered ‘irretrievably lost’. At this point, passengers can claim compensation for their bags, and the bag, technically at least, becomes the property of the airline. Of course, the airline doesn’t really want a bag full of your dirty laundry and holiday souvenirs, so these unclaimed and untraceable bags are passed along.

Lost bags
Bags which are never reclaimed may be sold. Photo: Pixabay

In the UK, items and lost bags will be either donated to charity or sent to auction, with the proceeds going to charity. Greasbys, an auction house in Tooting,, London, takes care of many of the lost items from London airports, auctioning them off every other Tuesday. Wellers is another auction house, with branches in Guildford and Chertsey, which sells items from London airports once a week.

In the southwest, Bristol Commercial Valuers And Auctioneers sells items from southwest airports such as Bristol and Exeter. Luton Airport’s lost property ends up at Hertfordshire Auctions. Usually lots can be inspected prior to the auction, but according to the Telegraph, most of it is just clothes and bags.

The Unclaimed Baggage Center
The Unclaimed Baggage Center. Photo: Dcwriterdawn via Flickr

In the US, the Unclaimed Baggage Center buys luggage from airlines without even viewing the contents. The huge store covers an entire city block in Alabama, and sells clothes, electricals, jewelry and more. It’s such a popular facility, people travel from all over the country to dig through the items in the hope of finding some bargains.

Similar facilities exist all over the world, with the money from lost luggage going to charity by one means or another. Although losing a bag is a nightmare, the fact it ends up helping a worthy cause (and passengers get compensated) is a small comfort in the process.