Lost luggage: Case histories

Every year, thousands of pieces of luggage are lost by airlines. Many take so long to locate that their owners give up hope and don't reclaim them. Then the airlines sell them. Clare Rudebeck reports from a bizarre auction
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The Independent Online

The suitcases piled around me have caused a lot of people a lot of grief. Holidays have been ruined, children devastated and tempers frayed by the loss of these trolley cases, rucksacks, pushchairs, skis and travel cots. But I'm hoping that their loss is my gain. I'm in Greasby's, an auctioneers in Tooting, South London, which sells off unclaimed baggage from Heathrow and Gatwick airports every Tuesday morning. Business is booming - with good reason. British airlines are among the most likely to send your suitcase to the other side of the world. In the first five months of this year, British Airways lost 16 bags for every 1,000 passengers. BMI was not far behind, losing 14.9 bags per 1,000.

The suitcases piled around me have caused a lot of people a lot of grief. Holidays have been ruined, children devastated and tempers frayed by the loss of these trolley cases, rucksacks, pushchairs, skis and travel cots. But I'm hoping that their loss is my gain. I'm in Greasby's, an auctioneers in Tooting, South London, which sells off unclaimed baggage from Heathrow and Gatwick airports every Tuesday morning. Business is booming - with good reason. British airlines are among the most likely to send your suitcase to the other side of the world. In the first five months of this year, British Airways lost 16 bags for every 1,000 passengers. BMI was not far behind, losing 14.9 bags per 1,000.

Figures released by the Association of European Airlines show that in May this year British Airways lost more bags than any other of its members. Which is lucky for me and my fellow bidders, because that luggage is now for sale. Greasby's are only allowed to auction off luggage after it has languished unclaimed for three months. With a bit of luck, therefore, in the next few hours I should be able to profit from the misery caused by British Airways' operational glitches in May.

Suitcases of all sizes and colours are piled up to the ceiling in the showroom. There are also various items that were only partly packed, and some which look as though they have fallen out of their cases. In one corner, there are bundles of pushchairs, some of which still have children's toys attached to them. And nearby, on a top shelf, there are "jackets, trs, tops etc (clean)". Lot 241 boasts "4prs child's fluffy slippers, 4 novelty items and 3 bear? figures (new)," while lot 126 is a "3m by 3m pop- up gazebo". To the untrained eye, it looks like a pile of old rubbish, but to the practised punter it's an opportunity to make a tidy profit.

Adey Yusuff, from Tooting, has been coming here for more than five years. "The second time I ever bought a bag here, I found $100 (about £55) in the pocket of some trousers," says Mr Yusuff. "I've bought bags on and off ever since then, but I've never been lucky again."

Unfortunately, the chances of my hitting on a cache of cash, cocaine or Kalashnikovs are slim. Before the bags are sold, the staff at Greasby's rifle through them, removing any valuables or nasties. "We've got to check that there aren't any passports or other important documents in there," says Darren Miller, who has worked at Greasby's for eight months. He's coy about the treasures unearthed by staff, saying that the most exciting items he's ever found have been camcorders and jewellery (subsequently sold as separate lots).

An increasingly diverse bunch of people now come to the auction rooms every week hoping to snap up such valuables for a fraction of their normal price. "We've always had the car-boot salers and the wholesalers," says Mr Miller, "but recently we've had more young people coming along. Students come here to pick up cheap electrical goods," he says. Hillary and Ernie, who did not want to give their surname, are regulars. They've been coming here for four years and are looking for clothes or other bric a brac that they can sell at car-boot sales. They say they have never found a huge bargain, but they did once make quite a lot of money from a job lot of neck cushions.

"I have heard stories of people finding secret stashes of money in suitcases, but the most we've ever found is 20p," says Hillary. And the couple are not without a conscience. On one recent holiday they were separated from their baggage for eight days and have not forgotten that trauma when dealing with other people's lost luggage.

"I once found a travel journal inside a bag that we bought here," says Hillary. "I realised that it belonged to a young girl who lived in Australia. She had put her e-mail inside the cover of the journal and so I got in contact with her. She was delighted to get it back."

Another punter, Cecilia, also has direct experience of losing her luggage. In 1982, when flying on a chartered flight from Ghana to London, her bags went missing. "I never got them back. Who knows where they went to?" she says. "I did get compensation, but it wasn't the equivalent of what I'd lost."

Until this year, that was the reality for most people whose luggage went astray. Passengers were only able to claim up to about £270 if their bags went missing or were damaged by an airline. But since 28 June, when the Montreal Convention (an international agreement on airlines' various liabilities to passengers) came into force, the limit has been increased to £850.

Even so, lost baggage is still the biggest source of complaints to airlines. "Sixteen per cent of the complaints we received last year were about missing luggage," says James Freemantle, an industry affairs adviser at the Air Transport Users Council. "It is an improvement on the year before, but for years now missing luggage has been the largest cause of grievance among air passengers." The complaints might be louder if more people realised that their luggage might end up being sold to strangers.

At 10.30am, the auction starts. All those taking part have to put down a £100 deposit. In return, they are given a bidding card. I take my place at the back.

The bidding could not be described as furious, but most lots sell. There is an understandable wariness about some items. After all, who knows who washed their clothes before travelling and who didn't? Lot 8, a green hold-all containing gents underwear and clothes, fetches a mere £5. But another lot which, according to the catalogue, contains clean jackets, trousers and tops, goes for £24. I've got my eye on lucky lot 13: "Lge black pull-along of lds clothing inc 2 coats, 8 jumpers, var tops, trousers and nightwear etc". I have no idea what "var" are but I try my luck, securing it for a mere £10. The first real bidding war erupts over a blender, being sold separately, which goes for £20. "You wouldn't pay that for a new blender," whispers a woman beside me.

Looking over at Ernie and Hillary, I see that they are reading a newspaper and have no interest in the early lots. But I'm undaunted and manage to buy lot 37, a grey trolley case containing ladies' suits, trousers and tops - for only £6.

Ernie and Hillary's first bid is for a box full of toiletries, while the man beside me, who claimed he was only after the suitcases, pays £12 for Lot 63, which comprises an airbed, a pair of crutches, cricket bat and ski boots. He's pleased with his purchase, confiding to a neighbour that he reckons the airbed is worth at least £80.

I have to wait until 2.30pm when the sale finishes to find out what I've bought. I may have only spent £16, but that suddenly seems like a lot for two bags of women's clothes. Opening them up, the first thing that hits me is a whiff of body odour - not a good sign. Rummaging through the contents of Lot 37, for which I paid £6, I discover four bras, several spangly tops and a large, partially completed tapestry of a young woman with a unicorn. The owner of this case and I clearly have different tastes, but I'm pleased with her suitcase, which I will certainly use.

Lot 13 is more disappointing. The owner seems to have been an elderly woman - judging by her taste in pants and dressing gowns - who was returning from Australia. Underneath layers of woolly clothing, I discover a key hanger decorated with koalas and kangaroos. So, essentially, I have just bought a second-hand trolley case for £16 - all the clothes from both suitcases are going straight in the bin.

It seems a sad end for these two cases, both of which have owners who'd love to be reunited with their slightly smelly contents.

Meanwhile, British Airways - impending baggage-handlers' strike notwithstanding - say that they are working on improving their poor record for losing luggage. "We do try not to lose people's baggage," says a spokesman, who added: "And passengers can now track their luggage via our website if it gets lost."

LOST LUGGAGE BY NUMBERS

23% percentage drop in complaints about mishandled baggage received by the Air Transport Users' Council, watchdog for the airline industry, in the year up to 31 March 2004. It does remain the biggest source of passenger dissatisfaction, however: the AUC received 276 written complaints and 625 telephone complaints (388 and 775, respectively, the previous year)

161 complaints about mishandled luggage to the AUC by Ryanair passengers, down from 201 the previous year. Complaints about Air France fell from 139 to 41

£850 average amount, per passenger, BA expects to pay out for lost baggage - treble what it paid before 28 June this year (around £250 to £300). Some proof of purchase may be required

13.3 in 1,000 chance of passengers' baggage going missing on European airlines, according to the Association of European Airlines (AEA)

16.8 in 1,000 proportion of British Airways passengers whose baggage went missing in the first six months of this year

13.8 in 1,000 proportion of British Airways passengers whose baggage went missing in June, ranking it equal bottom out of 26 by the AEA. The best was Meridiana, with a ratio of 3.3 per 1000

3 months after which airports are obliged to auction lost belongings, often as job lots

£35m amount paid out by the UK insurance industry every year for lost baggage

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