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Page last updated at 10:13 GMT, Wednesday, 16 April 2008 11:13 UK

What happens to lost airport luggage?

Contents of a suitcase lost at Heathrow

By Alexis Akwagyiram
BBC News

With thousands of bags lost at Heathrow's Terminal 5, some people will never see their luggage again. So what happens to bags when the hunt for their owner ends?

In a small warehouse filled with furniture, electrical goods and clothing hanging from the ceiling in clear plastic bags, a battle of egos is under way.

A bidding war has charged the air with tension.

But this isn't Christie's or Sotheby's - it's Greasby's in Tooting, south London.

And none of the prospective buyers are hoping to buy rare artwork.

They're vying for fishing weights, which are eventually sold for the princely sum of 14.

The more I buy, the better my chance of something decent. It's a gamble
Gary Marshall

About 40 people are assembled in the cramped room where everybody is seeking the perfect bargain.

Virtually every object - from televisions to trainers, cupboards and even the seats people sit on - bears a small white sticker with its lot number. Many of the cars outside are also for sale.

For many, the highlight is the sale of unclaimed bags from Heathrow airport.

Greasby's, along with a number of other auction houses in the UK, sells luggage once airlines have given up attempts to return bags to their owners.

Holiday hopes

Gary Marshall, from Enfield, north London, is a regular at these auctions, which he has attended weekly for more than a decade.

Last week he bought four cases - a modest haul compared with his average of between 15 and 20 each week.

Lost luggage at auction
The main attraction at the auction is lost luggage

The 46-year-old former engineer says buying at these auctions, which started out as a source of extra money, has become his "livelihood" as he sells the cases and their contents online and at a market stall he runs.

"It isn't easy to make money out of this," he warns, after explaining that he can sell the goods for up to six times the amount he paid.

"The more I buy, the better my chance of something decent. It's a gamble. You could get a bag of crap or open it to find designer goods, which you can then sell on eBay."

Suitcases purchased by BBC News for an average of 20 appear to support Gary's theory.

Their contents provide snapshots of holiday hopes: short-sleeved shirts and t-shirts are mixed in with denim miniskirts, bright beach towels, swimming trunks and several photographs of a young man in Hastings.

Contents of a suitcase lost at Heathrow
Three suitcases bought by BBC News were full of clothes
No toiletries, books, shoes or electrical goods suggests many items had disappeared
One black suitcase (above) contained these clothes and photos of a young black man in an England football T-shirt in Hastings

At the auction house, regulars face increasing competition from a new breed of buyers who have heard about the potential bargains on offer.

As Gary explains his recipe for auction success, a woman nearby explains that she and her boyfriend are first-timers who have travelled from Telford on their day off "to see what we get".

Recent problems with the baggage system at Heathrow's Terminal 5 (T5), which has caused a backlog of up to 28,000 items, has thrown the issue under the spotlight.

The terminal's difficulties have been so pronounced that two senior executives at British Airways have said they will leave the company.

The airline said about three months is spent using a "manual tracing process" to identify owners, which means none of the bags currently being sold at auction would be from T5.

A BA spokesman, who explained that all proceeds from auctioned luggage goes to charity, said: "The vast majority of bags are reunited with their owners. Every effort is made to trace them.

"But, unfortunately, there are a few occasions when this is not possible."

Patrick Leano
You can't see what's inside before you buy, so there's an element of mystery
Patrick Leano

All major airlines use the World Tracer system to assist in the recovery of lost baggage, says a BMI spokesman.

"The system offers up to 100 days of continuous tracing from when the passenger reports their baggage as missing.

"It looks to match tag numbers, baggage type, colour and brand of mishandled bags to those held on its database.

"When a match is achieved the item is forwarded on with a 'Rush Tag' to the airport nearest the owner and the baggage is delivered to the customer's door."

After a three-month period of trying to reunite a lost item with its owner, the item may be auctioned with proceeds going to charity, he adds, but the majority of lost bags are returned to their owner within 24 hours.

Not everyone at Greasby's is interested in making a profit from lost luggage. Patrick Leano, 28, bought a small shell suitcase because he and his girlfriend travel frequently and they wanted a strong, durable case.

"There is a 'karma thing' when you buy something lost, but I wanted a bargain and that's the one that caught my eye - I'll use this."

However, this doesn't mean that the chef from Battersea, south London, has no interest in the contents of his new acquisition. He said he would "definitely" sell anything interesting.

"You never know what you might get. You can't see what's inside before you buy, so there's an element of mystery. But the suitcase is the main attraction."

Regulars at Greasby's said the clothes inside the cases were usually mixed up a little to provide a balance of ages and gender in each case.

The throng of bargain hunters at Greasby's appear to be keenly awaiting the influx of bags expected at the auction house in the coming months, courtesy of T5's teething problems.

'We're not vultures'

Two small holdalls, two cameras and six prints for 32 make up the day's haul for Louise Moore, a customer service officer, but she plans to return in a few weeks to try and get T5 luggage.

"The cases will go on eBay so that I can make a profit. It's all legal money," she says, adding that she would sell the clothing inside the cases too.

Miss Moore, 27, from Grove Park, south London, is quick to point out that there is nothing wrong with what she and her fellow entrepreneurs are doing, stressing that they "aren't doing anyone any harm".

"We aren't vultures. The cost of living is going up so much that any little way to make a profit is fine."

Here is a selection of your comments.

If it had your address or identity in the case they would have returned the case! Nothing wrong with reusing items that can't be returned, much better than destroying them. The money from the original sale goes to charity and that price is higher if people are buying the cases to resell the case and content. So charity is gaining from this.
Ian Cummins, Reading

Article by Dom Joly this week mentioned he had bought 15 cases and found personal details in three so he was able to reunite them with their owners! Total attack on privacy of personal details this. He also mentioned that airlines claim they give the proceeds to charity, but when asked could not say which charities they had given this money to....
Lorna, Warwick

It seems Britain laws are quite lax about the issue of selling what is not yours. I believe that in France they would have to wait one year and one day before they can legally claim rights on the luggage and hence sell them. One more reason not to fly BA.
Pierre, Berkshire

Difficult to understand this. Seems to be too much like making cash out of others misery. Often holiday luggage is of great importance to people and of a very personal nature! I would hate to think someone might be rummaging through my smalls or putting my vintage 1950s gear up for sale on eBay!! However they are more than welcome to have the bashed suitcase. Packing for hols at the mo, so I shall price everything up for them--Bless just in CASE it ends up at Greasbys saleroom!
Maggie Green, Wakefield

Whilst I do not have an issue with someone using a suitcase... How would these people like to see their possessions on Ebay, or a market stall, having no control over them. There may be sentimental value involved, there could be cherished possessions... legally there's nothing wrong - morally is a different question.
Lisa Ford, Telford, England

Would it not make sense to give it to charity? If I lost my case it would make me feel better that the contents were helping some person in need rather than making a quick buck for someone.
A Ahmed, London

All legal and nothing wrong - maybe? Seems to have a bad taste about it and symptomatic of society's values where people relish in picking over someone else's misfortune for personal greed. Everyone has different standards I suppose and some willing to ditch their morals for a few pennies. When I travel, I put an A4 sheet with name and address and flight details in the inside so it should always be traceable if intact regardless of what is lost on the outside.
John, Glasgow

This is outrageous!!!! Personal belongings and possibly DATA that could get into the hands of fraudsters. Are BA going to pickup my Identity Fraud bill. These items should be incinerated, securely.
Steve, Coventry

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