What happens to unclaimed luggage left at airports?

Bags are stored for a while, but what happens next depends entirely on the country

In 2022, 26 million bags were reported as lost. Getty
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Losing luggage is every traveller's nightmare, and we all dread arriving at a destination to forlornly wait at the carousel for luggage that fails to materialise.

According to a 2023 report by SITA – the IT provider to the air transport industry – looking into baggage insights from the previous year, the number of global airline passengers rebounded to 3.42 billion passengers in 2022, who, along with 4.3 billion pieces of luggage, criss-crossed the planet. With these numbers in mind, it's hard to comprehend how bags and owners are, for the most part, successfully reunited at all.

But mistakes do happen. They can be caused by the airline misplacing a bag – called mishandling – or by passengers leaving bags in airport car parks and terminals due to forgetfulness or surpassing weight restrictions.

In 2022, the number of such lost bags remained a tiny fraction of the total number of luggage items transported, yet it still reached a staggering 26 million. Many were later reunited with owners, thanks to the tracking bar codes on labels; however, as much as five per cent were deemed “irretrievably lost", meaning the airline and airport are unable to track down the owner. If this is due to the airline's mishandling, that airline will admit defeat and pay out compensation to the legal maximum of $3,800, which is about Dh13,900.

How long do airports keep unclaimed luggage?

Missing bags do not vanish into thin air, however, but rather are lost and unclaimed, and as such are typically held at the airport for a few days in the hope someone will arrive to collect them. After a designated period, luggage is then moved to a secure storage warehouse off-site for practicality.

In the hope that an owner will realise they scurried out of the airport without collecting their suitcases and come forward, errant bags are stored for an additional period of between 30 to 90 days, depending on the country. In Saudi Arabia, misplaced luggage is held at the airport for 30 days before being sent to a central holding service in Jeddah, while in the UAE, lost and found is stored for 90 days. In America, items are held only for 30 days, while the UK will hold onto lost and found for three months, but will charge customers to reclaim each item.

Sharjah airport, meanwhile, will retain items deemed "precious", such as passports, documents and bullion for a total of six months at its Lost and Found office, which, as with most airports, is open 24 hours a day. There is no fee to reclaim goods, only proof of ID.

If no one comes forward after three months, and the airport and airline fail to track the owner, a number of things can happen, depending on the airport or airline.

What happens to luggage that nobody claims?

In the US, unclaimed luggage is either destroyed, donated to charity, or bundled onto pallets for sale to third parties, who then sell off the contents. One such company is the Unclaimed Baggage Store, which began in the 1970s, buying and selling unclaimed luggage. More than 50 years later, it is still going strong, with its own online shopping site selling everything from medical scrubs to Hermes jewellery.

In Alabama, The Unclaimed Baggage Museum even displays the oddest, most bizarre items discovered. These include a suit of armour, a taxidermy rattlesnake, a creature from the David Bowie film Labyrinth, and a vintage Gucci bag found stuffed with ancient Egyptian artefacts, to name but a few.

Dubai, the world's busiest airport for 10 consecutive years, handled 82 million bags in 2022, and has a policy of storing the tiny percentage of lost bags on site for 90 days before handing them to the police.

In February this year, the airport was forced to issue a statement warning against fake online profiles claiming to be selling off unclaimed bags. Explaining that the posts were entirely unconnected to the airport, it warned people not to fall prey to the scam. “We want you to know it’s not us. We’re here for take-offs, not rip-offs,” it explained.

Unclaimed bags are generally the responsibility of the airline carrying it, unless the bag is lost before being checked in. In the event of losing a bag, customers should contact their airline first, which will endeavour to track it down and reunite it as quickly as possible. If luggage, or other items for that matter, are lost by the passenger within the airport, contact the airport lost and found department directly, which are open 24 hours a day at major airports.

Updated: June 04, 2024, 6:45 AM