It is one of Silicon Valley's hidden treasuries of cutting-edge gadgetry. Boxes of high-end Nokia cell phones, two-way pagers, digital cameras as well as occasional Palm Pilots and laptop computers clutter an oversized closet at San Francisco International Airport.
Nowhere is the gizmo-ization of America on better display than at the lost-and-found in the nation's airports. Wireless electronics have become standard in-transit companions--unless they become misplaced, a common problem in this hurry-up time of year, at which point they land in these, the dead-letter offices of the high-tech age.
"People come to airports anxious and their phones, beepers and computers keep getting smaller," said Janine Reathi, a San Francisco police service aide assigned to the airport's lost-and-found. This is a surefire formula for losing stuff, and the resulting accumulations can resemble geeky toy mines.
Cellular phones and pagers are the most common circuited orphans, 38 of which turned up at Dulles International Airport in November (to go with 26 purses and wallets, 45 pieces of luggage and 101 sets of keys). At Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport, 50 phones show up in a typical month, most left at security checkpoints, said Roy Springer, who's in charge of the lost-and-found. On Dec. 4, hundreds of lost electronic devices helped net $22,000 at an auction of unclaimed goods from Miami International Airport.
"We're getting every laptop you can imagine, video cameras, digital cameras, you name it," said Dickie Davis, the manager of terminal operations in Miami, who lost a Palm Pilot of her own last week. Proceeds from the auction, amassed from a four-month buildup, benefit the Dade Country Aviation Department.
Lost-and-founds "have turned out to be big business and it takes a lot of manpower to handle," said David Sing, who works at the US Airways baggage service office at Reagan National Airport.
In addition to police-operated lost-and-founds, individual carriers have their own repositories for goods found on planes or at ticket counters. US Airways gets 30 to 35 phones a month at National, compared with 50 to 100 sets of eyeglasses, Sing said. The items stay for 48 hours before they're sent to a central warehouse in Pittsburgh.
Most airports keep stuff for 30 to 90 days, starting in a "live" bin of goods retrieved within 72 hours. They're then moved to longer-term rooms. An exception is Boston's Logan International Airport, where the airport police force hangs on to things indefinitely, often for several years, said Joseph Lawless, the airport's public safety director. "Storage has become a big problem for us," he said.
Unlike most gateways, Logan has no program to unload "dead" stuff after an elapsed period. Baltimore-Washington International Airport donates clothes to Goodwill and the Salvation Army. After 90 days, San Francisco purges its amassed clothes to charity and gadgets to San Mateo County, where the airport is located. Airport staff reserve the right to keep things "for police purposes," said Sgt. John Franicevich, who oversees the handling of lost items. For instance, they might assemble a grab bag of cell phones and cameras and leave it lying around a terminal as a decoy to entrap thieves.
Under no circumstances may airport personnel keep lost items for themselves, Franicevich said, although the same question brought an "off-the-record, no comment" response from officials at two other U.S. airports.
Boston's Lawless said 95 percent of owners recover their lost things, perhaps because the devices stay there so long. Bill Meek, meanwhile, said only about 30 percent of lost phones are picked up from his Miami post, a figure influenced by the high proportion of travelers passing through en route to Latin America. About 75 percent of cell phones in San Francisco are picked up, said lost-and-found police aide Ginger Huey. However, this number seems to be declining slightly, she said, perhaps given that they've become so much cheaper, and thus maybe are considered more disposable.
But as gadgetry gets more sophisticated, it also gets easier to find owners. New mobile phones are typically connected to voice mail, which allows lost-and-found workers to simply call the phone numbers (they often pop up automatically when devices are turned on) and leave messages. Owners of lost pagers will often page themselves, setting off a symphony of beeps emanating from lost-and-found shelves.
"It becomes a 'who's this?' 'who's this?' situation," said Franicevich. "We don't get a lot of opportunity for sleuth work, so this is fun for us."
Likewise, the proliferation of gadgetry has educated airport lost-and-found workers on the nuances of wireless brands, functions and styles. San Francisco's Reathi, who herself owns an ancient Motorola cell phone, is probably in the 99th percentile of knowledgeable gadget owners.
"If I get three Nokia digitals on the same day, I know I'll have an easier time returning them because their numbers pop up when you turn them on," Reathi said. But of course, she added, it would be easier if people just put their names and phone numbers on stuff.
CAPTION: Some of the high-tech gadgets collected in Baltimore-Washington International Airport's lost and found.
CAPTION: BWI Airport customer service representative John Legambi shows some of the lost items, including cell phones and pagers.