Here's where your luggage goes when airlines lose it

If an airline has ever lost your checked luggage while traveling, you’re not alone: Airlines lose more than 2 million bags a year, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Of the hundreds of millions of bags handled by U.S. airlines, the vast majority make it to their intended destination. The 2 million pieces of lost luggage account for just a tiny fraction – .51% – of all the luggage that passes through terminals. The percentage is a little higher during the holidays (.066%).

When airlines lose a suitcase, they’ll spend up to three months trying to get it back to the rightful owner. Most of the 2 million lost bags are returned to their owner within 24 hours. If it’s not found within three months, airlines will stop looking and typically reimburse up to $3,800 for the lost luggage, according to NPR.


Unclaimed luggage sits at baggage claim at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport in Glen Burnie, Md., on Wednesday, December 28, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

But what happens to the lost luggage if it’s found after the three months have passed? This is where the Unclaimed Baggage store in Scottsboro, Ala. comes in. 

What is Unclaimed Baggage? 

Almost every piece of lost luggage found after the airlines have stopped looking ends up at the same place: Unclaimed Baggage, the nation’s only lost luggage retail store in Scottsboro, Alabama. From clothing to electronics to everything in between, you can spend hours there digging through piles of used items at a big discount.

MORE: 6-year-old flying alone ends up on wrong Spirit Airlines flight

Unclaimed Baggage started in 1970 when Doyle Owens drove from Northeast Alabama to Washington, D.C. and bought his first load of unclaimed luggage from Trailways Bus Line, according to the store’s website.


Scottsboro, Ala., - Nov. 4, 2023: Jackie Warner, of Nashville, Tenn., shops for her family during the 42nd Annual Ski Sale at Unclaimed Baggage. Warner and her family were preparing for an upcoming ski trip to Colorado. (Photo by William DeShazer for

He sold the items on card tables in an old rented house, then left his full-time job to found the Unclaimed Baggage Center. Doyle, his wife Sue and their two sons helped run the business.

Eight years later, Doyle Owens landed his first airline baggage contract with Eastern Airlines. That’s when the business hours went from three days a week to six days a week.

MORE: TSA testing self-screening to speed up airport wait times: How it works

"Gradually, Unclaimed Baggage formed relationships with all other domestic airlines, solidifying its position as the country’s only lost luggage store," the website says.

In 1981, the store held its first "Ski Sale" to focus on the abundance of ski gear in its inventory. It was such a success, it became an annual November event that continues to draw ski enthusiasts to Alabama every year.

Image 1 of 4

Scottsboro, Ala., - Nov. 4, 2023: Douglas Ferdinand, of Dallas, Ga., shops with his puppy, Femi, during the 42nd Annual Ski Sale at Unclaimed Baggage. (Photo by William DeShazer for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Since then, Doyle’s son Bryan and wife Sharon bought the business and expanded to a 50,000-square foot building that takes up an entire city block. There’s even a cafe and a Museum of Found Treasures.

"The store now receives thousands of unclaimed items each week, all of which are sorted, cleaned, cleared, prepped, priced, and stocked via the center’s complex processing system," the store’s website says. 

Which airline loses the most luggage?

American Airlines lost the most bags out of all carriers in 2021, FOX Weather reports, with an average of .85% of all bags lost.  


An American Airlines agent helps a passenger at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, CA on Thursday, November 16, 2023. (Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Delta lost the fewest, though all carriers lost more wheelchairs and scooters than suitcases. Airlines checked more than 532,000 of them in 2021 and lost 7,239 or 1.65%. During busy Thanksgiving travel, that rate went up to 1.73% wheelchairs and scooters lost.

What you shouldn’t pack in checked luggage

The U.S. Department of Transportation warns against packing these items in your checked bags:  


Travelers wait in line for assistance with lost luggage at the William P. Hobby Airport on December 28, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

  • Small valuables: cash, credit cards, jewelry, an expensive camera.
  • Critical items: medicine, keys, passport, tour vouchers, business papers.
  • Irreplaceable items: manuscript, heirlooms.
  • Fragile items: eyeglasses, glass containers, liquids.

"Although only a tiny percentage of checked bags are permanently lost, your bag might be delayed for a day or two," the agency says. "Don't put perishables in a checked bag; they may spoil if it is delayed. It is wise to put items that you will need during the first 24 hours in a carry-on bag (e.g. toiletries, a change of underwear)."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.