May 16, 2012 -- Ever wonder what happened to that piece of lost luggage that was never seen again? In some instances, the airport where it was left could have auctioned it off for profit.
One of the busiest hubs in the United States is Miami International Airport, where M-I-A isn't just the airport's call letters, but could easily stand for luggage that is "missing in action."
The airport is home to an enormous graveyard of discarded duffel bags and carry-ons that have been cast aside. There are also forgotten bikes, laptops, surf boards, cameras, cell phones, even paintings and crutches -- all of which have gone unclaimed or don't carry identification.
"We take the time to make sure that we reconnect the item with the person if that's possible," said Miami International spokesman Marc Henderson. "But, you know, the airport is not a storage shelter. So after 60 days, it's like, OK, it's time to have an auction."
Last year, across the United States, nearly 2 million suitcases were reported to be either lost, damaged or delayed. About 10,000 bags go missing at Miami International alone every year.
"People leave it, they forget about it, they don't need it, just anything you can think of is the reason why you see all this luggage," Henderson said. "We have a lot of stuff. We need to get it out. Somebody else's loss is somebody else's gain."
To avoid losing your luggage, Henderson said it is as simple as keeping your bag with you at all times.
"I walk the terminal all the time. Traditionally on average one or two times a day, I will see a bag that is not attended," he said. "Somebody has walked away, have gone into a shop, they've gone into an eating establishment. They've left their bag there."
"That's a "no-no," Henderson said because of the heightened security at airports today. He also suggested not packing anything of significant value, or if you must, carry those items with you on the plane.
"Just don't leave your stuff," Henderson said.
Miami International hosts a lost luggage auction twice a year to a standing room-only crowd who pays a $3 admission fee to get in on the bidding action. Most of the patrons are just regular folks who are looking to turn a quick profit.
Billy Leroy, who owns an eclectic props and antique store in New York City, was one of the bidders in Miami and is also one of the stars of the Travel Channel's new reality TV show, "Baggage Battles," which airs on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT. The show follows three teams of savvy auction specialists who travel the world to place bets in high-stakes luggage auctions.
Dozens of these auctions happen at airports all over the country, with thousands of bags and millions of dollars at stake. Bidders can't open the unclaimed bags and have to rely on their instincts to place bets on what could be inside -- which could be anything from expensive jewelry or just laundry.
Only after bidders win the bags do they get to open them and find out if they have hit the jackpot – one lucky bidder won a suitcase with 10,000 British pounds inside -- or just got stuck with junk.
"You've got to shoot from the hip and just vibe it," Leroy said of betting on the bags. "I mean, it sounds crazy but that's how I do it, that's how I make my business is by my gut feeling."
Faced with a mountain of luggage, bidders are given about an hour to pick up the bags, handle them and get a feel for what they might be carrying. Leroy also said he employs a "smell test," and said he won't bid on a bag that smells bad.
"Heavy is good, but carry-on is good too," Leroy said. "Expensive carry-on is good, and heavy, expensive carry-on is good, but heavy expensive carry-on could have dirty underwear in it."
But Leroy said that formula can sometimes backfire because an expensive-looking bag could be a fake.
"Only by opening can you tell if it's real," he said.
Miami International has made as much as $100,000 in a single auction and it's not just off lost luggage bags. They also auction off singular items in bulk, where bidders can take bets on bags of jewelry or electronics that have been left at TSA checkpoints, or entire cargo loads of discarded items.
"People just forget," Marc Henderson said. "If you brought your stuff here, it must be important to you... So be careful with it. But I've seen costume jewelry. We auctioned off an automobile motor. That was kind of strange."
As for Billy Leroy, he spent $350 to buy an old truck, which was carrying some military items, and a bag that contained a pair of pants with rare coins in the pocket, a profit of $3,300 when he cashed out.
But Leroy spent a total of $2,000 at Miami International, in part on a Cartier watch, knowing full well that all of his calculations and hunches could amount to one big bust. The watch turned out to be a fake. But at one point, he won a Swiss Army bag that didn't contain much of value, but he found the owner's car rental information inside.
"I might do a good deed and return this bag to its owner," Leroy said. "People lose their luggage because they don't mark their name on their luggage... so whoever owned this bag, you should have marked your bag."