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How to recover a lost item at TSA, the airport or your flight

Where (and when) you left something behind matters

Abstract illustration of a busy airport with passengers carrying luggage and looking for lost items
(Myriam Wares/Illustration for The Washington Post)

It’s a classic scene from “Home Alone”: The McCallisters are frantically sprinting through Chicago O’Hare, desperate to catch their flight.

In that chaotic run through the airport, it isn’t hard to imagine the family leaving behind a few important possessions before boarding their plane — not to mention forgetting Kevin entirely.

Perhaps a pair of car keys were dropped in O’Hare’s famous Hall of Flags while darting between other travelers, or a gift for Grandma was left at airport security. (Although the movie was filmed pre-9/11, so there was no Transportation Security Administration.)

We catalogued all the 'Home Alone' travel plot points that wouldn’t hold up today

You get the point: Travel can be hectic, and airports are a place where items are frequently lost. In fact, the TSA says that approximately 90,000 to 100,000 items are lost each month at checkpoints. “People leave behind items at TSA checkpoints all the time. It’s extremely common,” says Lisa Farbstein, a TSA spokesperson.

Here’s what to do if you lose an item while traveling, whether it’s in the airport or onboard, and what the experts say you can do to get it back.

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Where (and when) you lose an item matters

Several entities work together to get you from Point A to Point B when you’re flying. And typically, each of them operates independently from one another.

That means where you lose an item during your travels is an important consideration in getting it back. There are three primary operations to consider:

  • If you lose an item by the gate, on the plane, at the check-in counter or in an airline lounge, contact the airline.
  • If you lose an item while going through security, talk to TSA.
  • If you lose an item elsewhere in the airport, contact the airport.

“I think people don’t know whether to contact an airline, an airport or TSA to find their misplaced item,” Farbstein says. In almost all situations, you must file a lost item claim online to begin the process.

Wherever you lose something, it’s best to be as descriptive as possible about the missing item and to include any unique features, such as color, stickers, specific markings or serial numbers. “It’s easier to identify it and make sure the proper organization returns it,” Farbstein says.

What to do if you lose an item on the plane, in the gate area or in the airline lounge

The airline is your best contact for lost items onboard an aircraft, by the check-in desks and gate area, or within an airline’s lounge. The major U.S. airlines manage their lost-and-found claims processes online:

After you fill out an online form and provide contact details, the airline will reach out if the item is recovered. Travelers have a choice of picking up the lost item at the airport or having the airline ship the item, at your cost. However, don’t expect this process to happen quickly. Expect a turnaround time of days or weeks, not minutes or hours.

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Realize you lost an item before leaving the airport? Try to speak to someone in person to track it down. For instance, a passport left in a seat pocket could be retrieved by an airline employee. Airlines generally don’t allow passengers to reboard aircraft after deplaning, but a helpful agent may be willing to go the extra mile.

Or take my recent situation as an example: I had already landed in Honolulu when I realized I left my laptop at an American Airlines lounge in Los Angeles. At the airline’s lounge in Honolulu, I was able to speak to an employee, who called her colleague at LAX. She confirmed my laptop was recovered, sparing me the stress of not knowing who had access to it.

The airline lost your luggage. Now what?

Most major airports have a lost-and-found area staffed by airline personnel, and it’s their job to reunite travelers with lost items. “When one of our team members finds a lost item on an aircraft, at a gate or in an Admirals Club, they bring it to American’s baggage-service office at each airport,” says Rachel Warner, an American Airlines spokesperson.

Most of the major airlines typically keep items for 30 days at a local airport facility. For American specifically, items that are not claimed within this period are then transferred to a central Dallas lost-and-found center.

What to do if you lose an item at TSA or elsewhere in the airport

A blueprint to a casino. A bowling ball. A child’s portable potty.

These are some of the items left behind at security, Farbstein says. . “Many travelers don’t even realize we have a lost-and-found program,” she notes.

Similar to the airline claims process, TSA manages its lost-and-found system online. “Based on your airport, the website will either give you a phone number to call or an online form to fill out if you’ve lost something.”

TSA will hold items for 30 days before turning things over to the state. When an item is found, TSA will notify travelers to pick up the item, have someone come pick it up on their behalf or have the item shipped at the traveler’s expense.

You asked: Will an AirTag save my lost luggage?

After 30 days, unclaimed electronics will have their memory removed and destroyed or be destroyed completely to protect personal data.

Security isn’t the only place where people lose items. “If you’ve left an item, maybe in a restroom or at a restaurant, something in the airport itself, it’s probably best to contact the airport,” Farbstein says. Each airport manages its lost and found differently, but generally, larger hubs have a lost-and-found process that is independent from the airlines or TSA.

Chris Dong is a freelance travel writer and credit card points expert based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @thechrisflyer.