Lost and found in the travel industry: Not necessarily a lost cause


Dulles Airport features a row of lost-and-found offices run by the airport, United Airlines and the Transportation Security Administration. For items on other airlines, travelers should inquire at the carrier's baggage claim office. (Andrea Sachs /The Washington Post)
April 6, 2012

When Jennifer Clardy Chalmers was little, she left her teddy bear on a flight from Texas to Louisiana. At least one of them was inconsolable.

While the 10-year-old tried to readjust to life without her stuffed companion, Preppy Bear was traveling the country — to Atlanta and then to Florida before winging it back home to Shreveport, La. A small squadron helped recover the bear: Jennifer’s parents, who immediately called the airline; Delta crew members, who located the toy and rerouted it to Shreveport; and a neighbor, who collected Preppy Bear at the airport and gave him a lift to the Clardy residence.

Lost-and-found tips for travelers

“Twenty years later I can hardly imagine that a stuffed teddy bear not only traveled back across several states thanks to some very kind airline employees,” Clardy Chalmers said by e-mail, but also “was simply handed over to someone who said they knew my family.”

Every hour, if not every minute, some traveler somewhere forgets a personal item in an airport terminal, on a plane, in a hotel room or in a rental car. You’d think we’d learn to check the guest room outlet for the charger, the seat pocket for the iPad and the rental car trunk for the suit bag. But, alas, we don’t.

Fortunately, all is not lost.

The major players — airports, hotels, airlines and car rental agencies — have established procedures regarding travelers’ misplaced goods. Company Web sites feature detailed forms and phone numbers to help track down items. On the ground, employees sweep hotel rooms and plane and car seats, turning any finds over to the lost-and-found department — or drawer. (One unfortunate reality: the staff member with sticky fingers.) At Washington Dulles, for instance, passengers can knock on a triptych of lost-and-found doors belonging to, from left to right, the Transportation Security Administration, the airport and United Airlines.

“My advice is to be really proactive,” said Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com, “and hound them about getting it back.”

At the start of your quest, contact the correct authority to avoid the telephone-passing game. Check the airport lost and found for items left in parking lots, public spaces, concessions and post-security dressing areas, as well as curbside or on shuttle buses. Contact the TSA for objects abandoned in trays and on X-ray belts. Notify the airline about articles forgotten at the ticketing counter, at the gate or aboard the plane. For hotels, try the front desk first, then housekeeping. For rental cars, go straight to the local source, not the forever loop of nationwide reservations.

Allow me to speak from experience. On a recent trip to Columbia, S.C., I flew home without my black tank top, last seen drying in the back of the hatchback. I connected with Lucinda Adams, who runs lost and found for some of the airport’s rental car agencies. For more than a week, Lucinda phoned in her updates, a rolling sea of promise and futility. She delivered the bad news one morning: The renter after me had searched the vehicle but had come up empty-handed.

Oh well. If my shirt ever does surface, Lucinda knows where to find me.

Be quick about it

Haste also improves the odds of recovery. For example, if you’re still within the airport’s security zone, go back to the gate and ask an employee to retrieve the item from the plane. If you’ve left the secured area, alert the ticketing agent, who can relay a message to the gate staff.

“We get people reunited with their items before they even leave the airport,” said Paul Bushell, Virgin Atlantic’s vice president of airport operations in North America.

With rental cars, the optimum time is when the vehicle is still on the lot or queued up for a scrub. (I didn’t reach Lucinda until the next morning, after a new driver had sped away in my car.) At hotels, the sweet spot falls between checkout and the arrival of the next guests. And in all scenarios, we wish you godspeed if you’re within sprinting distance.

“We had a gentleman run all the way back from the terminal when we confirmed that his daughter’s stuffed animal was left behind, and she would not fly without it,” Michael Vazquez, safety and security supervisor at Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport, told me.

Personal effects aren’t housed in perpetuity; the eviction clock is ticking, in some places faster than others. For example, BWI Marshall Airport holds items for 30 days; Washington Dulles Airport, 60 days; and the Westin Washington D.C. City Center, six months.

The storage period benefits both parties. A traveler may be traveling abroad without phone or Internet service. Or he may not become aware of the missing culprit until days or weeks after his return.

“Sometimes we call the people and they don’t even know it’s lost yet,” said Joyce Bergin, a nine-year veteran of Dulles’s L&F department.

Meanwhile, back at the office, employees sleuth for clues. They match hotel room numbers, flight manifests and rental car contracts with travelers’ contact information. They look for labels, business cards and printed itineraries in bags and ID holders. They send letters to addresses listed on driver’s licenses. They jot down computer serial numbers and flip on electronics, hoping for a hot lead.

“We will turn on the phone and place a call in the directory, or look for anything in the computer without a password,” said Robert Yingling, spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees Dulles and Reagan National.

Lots of times, these techniques work. From last January to Dec. 11, Dulles’s two-person team handled more than 14,400 inquiring phone calls and e-mails; nearly 4,800 hopeful walk-ins; and 4,364 items, of which 1,300 were returned.

“It’s like being a detective,” Bergin said.

One of her most rewarding recoveries involved Ethio­pian adoption papers and the promising tip of a state notary stamp. Bergin chased down the adopting couple, using the notary seal and the Web to find their home city and phone number. She later received a thank-you card with a family photo featuring three beaming children adopted from Ethiopia.

The office’s cramped back room resembles a suburban garage sale, with objects stacked high on metal racks. On a recent Wednesday, three seasons of coats hung on a rod, and valuables such as computers and gadgets bedded down in plastic bins inside a secured cabinet. On the February and March racks, rolling bags made space for a ukulele, a mattress foam, a Hello Kitty backpack, a dumbbell and a Louis Vuitton makeup case mistagged as Yves Saint Laurent.

“We get a lot of big things, like 70- or 100-pound suitcases and bikes,” said Bergin, “and a lot of keys, cellphones and glasses.” A toilet, a hermit crab and a samurai sword are mentally filed under oddities.

Before lunch, the office had received two backpacks, a purse, a laptop (property of a passenger arrested at the airport) and a pair of visitors searching for a Thermos and a charger. Neither object appeared in the computer database. The men would have had better luck if they’d lost an Eisenhower-era hair dryer, which patiently sat on the middle shelf of February.

The stuff of our lives

When it comes to lost items, we travelers aren’t in­cred­ibly imaginative.

At hotels, we most frequently overlook chargers, phones and articles of clothing. Most items left on planes are electronics, such as iPads and Kindles, and wallets that slip out of our pockets as we twist and turn in our seats. Rental cars are black holes of chargers, garage door openers, cameras and, among music dinosaurs, CDs. The TSA is an accessories department of belts and wallets. The agency’s Dulles outpost contains so many belts, it separates them into black and brown, reversible and not, and miscellaneous (such as cloth).

With our growing reliance on technology for logistics and entertainment, electronics are fast filling the lost-and-found coffers. Last year, Credant Technologies, which advises businesses on data protection, asked five U.S. airports to report the number of lost devices in July. The results: 4,416 laptops, 4,380 tablets or smartphones, and 2,952 USB sticks. The company conducted a similar survey at 20 San Francisco hotels. The findings for all of 2011: more than 2,300 electronic instruments, with an average recovery rate of 45 percent.

“Electronic devices are being lost at an increasing clip,” said Darren Shimkus, senior vice president of data security at Credant. “And the reclamation numbers are pretty low.”

Gary Epstein is one of those travelers who lost but never found.

After a February flight from Denver to Dulles, the Washingtonian was in the taxi line when he remembered that he’d left his iPad in the plane’s seat-back pocket. His wife immediately called United. Time elapse: about 15 minutes.

The first call was promising (the gate agent would go check Seat 7D); the remaining 11 were frustrating. After four weeks, the couple admitted defeat and purchased a new gadget.

“It was like getting lost in a house of mirrors,” said his wife, Jeri. “If you leave stuff, you’re out of luck.”

But for every Gary and Jeri Epstein, there’s a Cindy Estep and Treos.

Near the end of a 2003 trip to Ireland, Estep realized that she was minus one of her traveling companions. She’d left her stuffed dog at the Killarney hotel. Attempts to reclaim him at her next two stops failed. Once back in the States, she connected with the housekeeper who’d found the animal, then arranged transportation home for Treos — and a surprise stowaway.

“They also sent back the dirty clothes I’d left behind,” Estep said.

Unlike Treos, she’d intended to lose those.

A new lease on life

In the life cycle of unclaimed property, the lost-and-found office is not the morgue. It’s the rebirth center.

After a set waiting period, many operators, such as Dulles, invite the finder to return for his or her prize. Others let their employees rummage through the treasure bin. Loads of goods are also donated. The Hilton Los Angeles Airport, for one, donates items to Goodwill. Dulles gives luggage to the airport’s canine unit for explosive material training and sends eyeglasses and cellphones to charities. The airport’s office forwards official documents to the issuing agency, such as military cards to the Department of Defense. And not to spread any false hope, but reams of items are sold at auction. If you left a brown belt at a Pennsylvania airport’s TSA checkpoint, I think I might have found it . . . on GovDeals.com, an online auction site that sells airport remainders.

Finally, those who either refuse to give up or have given up and need a successor item should arrange a pilgrimage to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Ala.

The repository, founded in 1970 by a part-time insurance salesman, accepts everything and anything left on planes, trains and buses. The 40,000-square-foot facility contains 5,000 to 7,000 objects, including luggage, wedding dresses, cameras, taxidermied animals and a full suit of armor.

“You’ll see things that make you go, ‘What were they thinking?’ ” said spokeswoman Brenda Cantrell.

The store receives a million visitors a year. Among them was an Atlanta man who, by sheer coincidence, reunited his wife with her long-lost ski boots. The store stresses the unusualness of this event: On its online Q&A section, it responds to the query “Can you find my lost suitcase (glasses/laptop/jewelry/favorite sweater?)” with a frank “Regrettably, ‘No.’ ”

Yet do folks wistful for their old travel accompaniments ever give up the quest?

Admitted Cantrell, “I think people are quietly looking for their items.”

Or loudly looking for them.

Black tank top, where are you? Please come home.

Lost-and-found tips for travelers

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