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Strange world of lost luggage

Where missing bags find new owners

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One million bags a year pass through the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama.

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(CNN) -- It's the moment every air passenger dreads: standing alone at an empty carousel with the growing realization that their bag has gone missing.

In an era of global travel, suitcases of clothes, toiletries and souvenirs could have wound up anywhere, perhaps Anchorage, Alice Springs or even Addis Ababa.

But while most lost airline luggage is successfully reunited with its owner, the remainder, more often than not, finds its way to a far more unlikely destination -- a sleepy town in Alabama.

Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Scottsboro is home to the Unclaimed Baggage Centerexternal link, a huge warehouse mall where items that cannot be traced back to their owner are sold off at bargain prices.

"Airlines put a lot of effort into tracking down the owners of lost luggage, they have software and personnel assigned to it," the Center's Brenda Cantrell told CNN.

"This is not only because they have to pay out for the lost baggage, but because there is a lot of goodwill involved."

Typically, an airline hangs on to baggage for 90 days while it tries to find the owners.

After 100 days they will usually reimburse passengers for their loss. Despite their efforts, about one million items a year make it to Scottsboro, ranging from the mundane -- clothing, luggage and cameras -- to the bizarre.

Among the strangest finds have been a case containing a full suit of armor, a Jim Henson puppet, a trunk of Egyptian artifacts including a mummified eagle, a rare 1770 violin, a sparkling 5.8 carat solitaire diamond ring and an original painting valued at $20,000.

"Some eye-popping things come through our facility," said Cantrell.

Clothing, jewelry, digital cameras and luggage are among the big sellers at the Unclaimed Baggage Center, which was founded by Bryan Owens, a Scotsboro native who helped design airline baggage-tracking software.

Some items are simply given away. The Center has donated large numbers of crutches to a war veterans organizations, clothes to the homeless and baby strollers to a teen pregnancy center.

While most customers walk away with a bargain, some find more than they bargained for.

"One gentleman from Atlanta was passing through and bought a pair of ski boots for $45 for his wife to replace ones she had lost on an airline and been reimbursed for," said Cantrell.

"He had no idea until he got home that these actually were in fact his wife's original boots -- they still had her initials inside."

To ensure your bags don't end up in Scottsboro, the Center offers tips for their safe transit:

  • Make sure the bag is not broken.
  • Check your destination tag is correct.
  • Insure expensive items.
  • Avoid marking bags with special handling instructions.
  • Arrive early for check-in.
  • Place identification inside and outside bags.
  • Be able to identify your contents.
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