Airport Lost & Found

Don’t leave your stuff at the TSA checkpoint

Resolved to fly more in 2020? How to keep your stuff.  

In 2019, airline passengers tried to take hundreds of thousands of prohibited and banned items through airport security checkpoints in the United States.

Transportation Security Administration officers found hatchets, inert grenades, fireworks, firearms (most of them loaded) and so many knives that the TSA doesn’t even keep a count.

Instead, the agency boxes them up, weighs them and hands pallets of knives and other “voluntarily abandoned” property over to state agencies to be sold as surplus property.

TSA officials say passengers who don’t want to leave a banned item behind at the checkpoint have a few options:

If the item is approved for checked baggage, a passenger can put the item in a carry-on bag and go check it in or ask the airline to retrieve an already checked back and put the item in there.

Another option: Airport Mailers and some other companies have kiosks set up near security checkpoints at many airports where travelers may package up items and pay to mail them home.

But it’s not just items on TSA’s “no fly’ list that get left behind at airports.

Each month, TSA also collects and catalogs 90,000 to 100,000 other items that are perfectly legal to travel with, but which are inadvertently left behind at airport checkpoints by harried and distracted travelers.

Those items range from scarves and sunglasses to laptops, smartphones and some odd “How did they forget THAT?” items such as bowling balls, violins, gold teeth and urns and boxes filled with human cremains.

On a post-holiday tour of TSA’s Lost & Found room at Reagan National Airport, we spotted plenty of those items, as well as multiple bags filled with left behind IDs.

We also saw shelves lined with ballcaps, CPAP breathing machines, winter coats, car key fobs that will cost $200 or more to replace, car seats, canes and fully packed carry-on bags.

It’s easy to see how hats and scarves get left behind in the bins, but what about laptops, entire carry-on bags and other essential items?

Besides the “people are in a rush,” factor, TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein has some theories:

“When it comes to laptops, many brands are grey and the same color as the checkpoint bins, so it can be easy to overlook your laptop,” says Feinstein. “Also, if a bin has an advertisement in the bottom, travelers’ eyes may be drawn to the ad and cause them to miss the driver’s license and keys still in the bin.”

The number of bins people use may also contribute to the pile-up in the Lost & Found. If you’ve scattered your stuff across multiple bins (coats here, electronics there, a flat laptop and an ID in another bin), you may overlook items in the last bin as you rush to take your stuff out and stack up the used bins.

The pile of canes?

“It’s not that we have so many miraculous recoveries at TSA checkpoints,” says Farbstein, “I think attendants and family members helping wheelchair users who also have canes often forget to pick up the canes once they’re through the checkpoint.”

Keeping your stuff out of Lost & Found

TSA keeps items left behind at security checkpoints for a minimum of 30 days and posts phone numbers on its website where travelers can contact the Lost & Found department at each airport.

(Keep in mind that airports and airlines will have their own lost and found procedures for things left in the terminals and on airplanes.)

To improve your chances of getting your stuff back – or not losing it in the first place – Farbstein offers these tips:

  • Tape a business card or some other form of ID to your laptop or smartphone. “So many models are alike, so this can make all the difference in getting yours back,” said Farbstein.
  • Before you get to the checkpoint, or while you’re standing online, take time to consolidate all your miscellaneous items (i.e. scarves, hats, gloves) and take everything out of your pockets (keys, phones, wallets, etc.). Instead of putting small items in a bin, put them in your carry-on in an extra plastic bag you’ve packed just for that purpose. If you don’t put loose items in the bin to begin with, you eliminate the chance of leaving anything in the bin on the other side.
  • Pay attention to everything you put in the bins, including things that may have a high emotional value. “A laptop may cost thousands of dollars, but I can assure you that an old beat-up stuffed animal that a child has left behind is valuable to the parent who is now dealing with a crying child,” says Farbstein.

Help is on the way

Looking forward, as part of a $96.8 million contract awarded last year to Smiths Detection, in 2020 most large and major airports in the United States will be getting computed technology 3D X-ray scanners at the checkpoints. This new machinery will allow travelers to keep their electronics in their carry-on bags and reduce the chance of so many laptops and other gadgets getting left behind.

(My story: “How to avoid leaving stuff behind at the TSA checkpoint” first appeared on CNBC in a slightly different version)

Odd things left at airports

Cellphones, laptops, neck pillows and books are among the most common forgotten items, but bowling balls, valuable jewelry and other treasures also end up in airport lost and found centers.

Last month, the pilot of a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight heading to Kuala Lumpur from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia requested permission to return to the gate after a mother realized she’d left her baby behind in the boarding gate area.

Last week authorities at Alaska’s Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) turned to social media seeking help in identifying the owner of a plastic bag containing human ashes that was left at a security checkpoint back in August.

Picture perfect

About 1000 items a day end up in the 5,000-square-foot warehouse managed by the Lost & Found department at Los Angeles International Airport. Along with the electronics, jewelry and photo IDs, LAX police found a still unclaimed script for the yet-to-air season premiere of a popular TV show that ended the previous season with a cliffhanger. (And no, LAX officials won’t reveal the show, nor the plot.)

Most airports keep found inventory for 30, 60 or 90 days before discarding, donating or auctioning the items. But a few years back, airport police at LAX could not bring themselves to discard a wedding photo album found locked in a briefcase along with a mirror, a tablecloth and matching napkins.

A Facebook campaign eventually helped identify the couple, who hadn’t even realized the album was missing.  

Questions about a quilt

Last May, a floral box with a handmade quilt inside and a card reading “Charlene and Lark” was found at the Salt Lake City International Airport.

It was obvious that a lot of time and effort went in to making the quilt. So the airport lost & found team held onto it longer than the 30 days they usually do.

Facebook led the team to the photographer for Charlene and Lark’s wedding, who shared a contact for Charlene. But because the quilt had been intended as a wedding gift Lark had left behind after attending the funeral of his aunt – the quilt maker – Charlene at first ignored emails and calls about a quilt she’d never heard of. But she eventually called back and claimed the quilt.

Serial numbers and skunks  

Airport teams often use investigative skills and, sometimes, compassion, in finding a lost item its home.

Earlier this year the lost & found staff at Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport was able to reunite a St. Louis passenger with a valuable and sentimental piece of jewelry after calling Cartier customer service with the serial number on a found bracelet.

And, after an airline refused to let a passenger at Nashville International Airport take his pet skunk onboard or check it as baggage, customer service supervisor Chris Patterson agreed to look after Pepe the skunk for a few days. “After a week I realized that Pepe’s owner would not be coming back for him, and I was fine with that decision,” said Patterson, who adopted Pepe and later found him a home in a zoo.

Keeping an eye on lost items

After a Central Oregon festival celebrating the August 2017 eclipse, the lost and found in Redmond Municipal Airport (RDM) was overflowing with everything from camping gear and hula hoops to drugs and psychedelic paraphernalia. Water bottles, neck pillows and sunglasses are the usual fare, said RDM spokeswoman Erinn Shaw, “But we also once had a live chicken.”

Portland International Airport also reports a wide range of odd left behind item, including a 9-pound zucchini and a glass eye. “The zucchini is long gone,” said PDX spokeswoman Kama Simonds, “But the glass eye has been in the lost and found for a few years.”

TSA’s favorites

Courtesy TSA

The most common items left at airport security checkpoints around the country are belts, keys, glasses (sunglasses and prescription), photo IDs and laptops, says TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein, but she snaps and posts on social media photos of some odd left-behind items. On the list: diamond watches and engagement rings, bowling balls, canes and walkers, a Santa statue, Halloween masks and thousands of dollars in cash.

“The most unusual item I think I have seen left at a checkpoint was a portable child’s potty at Dulles Airport,” said Farbstein. It was returned.”

Airports & airlines work hard to return lost items

As a recent NerdWallet study points out, the amount of luggage lost by airlines spikes during the holiday travel season.

But passengers do their fair share of losing things on airplanes and in airports year-round.

In 2011, for example, the lost-and-found department at Portland International Airport (PDX) logged nearly 16,000 misplaced objects. So far this year, passengers have left behind almost as many items, and the hectic holiday travel season hasn’t even begun.

And it’s not just cell phones, chargers, laptops and eyeglasses that distracted and exhausted travelers leave behind.

“We’ve had dentures, a spare tire, a live fish – in water – and a Crock-Pot with food still inside” turned in, airport spokesperson Kama Simonds told NBC News.

A quick review of the searchable database at San Diego International shows a colander, a piñata, a poster of a U-boat, handcuffs and scented, colored pencils among the items waiting for their owners’ retrieval.

At Denver International, items left behind have included chainsaws, a 60-inch flat screen TV and the back seat of a passenger van, spokesperson Laura Coale said.

“We do everything in our power to locate the person and connect them with their lost item,” Coale said. “If the item has a name or state listed on it, we will conduct a search for them. If cell phones are unlocked, we will call the last number and also look for an ICE [In case of emergency] contact,” she said.

Airports and airlines typically have a set time limit for how long an item will be retained. Southwest Airlines states that it will spend 30 days looking for a passenger’s lost item and once all efforts have been exhausted to find the owner of a found item, the item will be “salvaged” and all proceeds donated to charity.

Denver International stores items for 30 days. Beyond that, clothing is donated to Denver Human Services; everything else becomes surplus and goes to auction.

The Transportation Security Agency also has a 30-day time limit for items left at airport security checkpoints. After that, items are shipped to a state-by-state designated collection facility and “are considered nonreturnable,” said spokesperson David Castelveter. Travelers who have left something behind should “contact the lost-and-found number for the respective airport.” Start by calling TSA (866-289-9673) or looking for a specific lost-and-found contact on its website.

Acting fast is essential, but figuring out where you may have lost something and where to file a claim can be confusing. Items lost on airplanes (and sometimes in gate hold areas) are delivered to the airlines. In some airports, such as PDX, items left at TSA checkpoints and on shuttle buses are brought to a central office; in other airports everything is kept separate. Some large airports have sophisticated, searchable databases; others require that you file a claim with a phone call or e-mail, and keep calling back to see if your item has been found.

Websites such as AirportLostandFound.com – which currently displays details for several lost Kindles, a pair of customized earplugs and more than 200 other lost items – promises to search for matches in the lost-and-found databases of multiple airports and airlines as well as those of food and retail outlets within airports. If they find your item, the site will try to organize a reunion, but there may be a fee.

As the busy holiday travel season approaches, here are a few basics for finding your stuff – and not losing it in the first place.

  • Identify cell phones, laptops, books, raincoats and other items with information (phone number, address sticker) that will help someone return a found item.
  • Don’t put anything in the seatback pocket of an airplane. It’s just too easy to leave something behind.
  • If you lose something, act fast. Retrace your steps, call in or log a claim with the airport and the airline as soon as possible.
  • Don’t give up hope. It may take a few days for an item to be found, turned-in and logged into a database.

(My article: Airports & Airlines work hard to return your lost items first appeared on NBC NEW Travel)