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Sun, May 11, 2008 - Page 12 News List

UK airports auction off passengers’ lost luggage

By Elodie Mazein  /  AFP , LONDON

“At least I have a good one,” said Hannah Taylor as she opened a suitcase full of clothes she had just bought at a London auction that sells dozens of pieces of lost luggage each week.

She was one of around 50 people who gathered for a sale at Greasby’s in Tooting, in the south of London, for a sale of 138 bags.

The auction house expects to get a boost from the recent chaos at London Heathrow airport’s new Terminal 5, when thousands of travelers lost their bags following technical problems when it opened on March 27.

For Taylor, 31, this is a first.

She traveled from Newbury, west of London, to test out a plan hatched by a friend — buy suitcases cheaply at auction and then sell their contents on Internet auction site eBay.

“It’s a hobby,” she said. “I’ve come to see, maybe I’ll get designer gear. It’s pot luck.”

Taylor had just bought seven suitcases for £213 (US$417), but worried that their contents might be more intimate than she expected.

“I thought everything was clean and folded, wrapped in plastic [but] some frequent bidders told me that you get lots of rubbish, dirty underwear,” she said.

Some 42.4 million bags were lost around the world last year — 18.86 bags per 1,000 passengers, at an estimated cost of US$3.8 billion to the aviation industry.

Some 85 percent are reunited within 48 hours but 0.57 bags per thousand passengers are never returned home and often end up at auction houses.

The International Air Transport Association said that airlines must spend 100 days trying to reunite lost bags with their owners before selling them off.

British Airways, the sole carrier operating at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, still has some weeks before it can start selling off lost bags and, in any case, says it has reunited most of the lost bags with their owners.

But it does often send lost bags to auction houses and, a spokesman said, donates money earned from the sales to charity.

“In a good week, we can have 300 lots, but after the chaos at Terminal 5, we are expecting many bags in the coming weeks,” said Christine Satchett, owner and auctioneer of Greasby’s.

The contents of the bags are sorted in the auction house’s reception area. Valuable items such as electrical equipment and jewelry are sold separately, while the rest is put back into the cases at random.

It is a lucky dip — and some buyers get more than they bargained for.

“They could buy some guy’s dirty washing as some just walk out [of the airport] and they don’t want their rucksack — they just want money from the insurance,” Satchett said.

With a starting price of £5, suitcases are given a brief description and then the bidding begins.

Taylor snapped up lot two for £24. It contains scores of T-shirts, all in good condition.

But then she looks in a side pocket and finds a silicon bra insert used for temporary breast enhancement.

“Oh my god! What’s that? I’ve bought a boob job!” she screams.

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