Lost Luggage
Kim Carney / msnbc.com
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/10/2008 10:04:05 AM ET 2008-04-10T14:04:05

There’s no turning back now.

Following the lead of United, Northwest, Delta and US Airways, Continental Airlines announced beginning May 5, passengers will have to pay a $25 fee to check a second bag. Any moment now, we'll have to declare this to be the industry-wide standard.

How will well-mannered travelers cope? Some folks will grumble while they pay that extra fee, others will finally take the time to learn how to pack it all into just one suitcase — but most of us will just end up trying to carry more stuff with us onto the plane.

That means, of course, overhead bin space will become even more precious —  and a lot more stuff will end up getting left behind at airports. Not because it won’t fit onto airplanes, but because the more you carry, the easier it is to lose track of your belongings.

Where does it all go?
The shelves and lockers at airport lost-and-found offices are already overflowing with all kinds of items distracted, anxious, sleep-deprived or just plain forgetful folks have left in food courts, gate holding areas, parking lot shuttles, taxis and bathrooms. “I’m amazed at all the stuff people leave,” says Kim Brown, a ground transportation coordinator who also deals with lost-and-found items at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. “We get more than 200 items a day turned in here — everything from cell phones, laptops, and prescription glasses to wallets full of cash and oxygen tanks.”

Some of the stuff folks leave behind is replaceable — often it’s not. Which is why Brown was pleased last week to be able to reunite a woman with a sweater she’d left on a parking lot shuttle bus. “The sweater had belonged to and been worn by the woman’s mother, who was no longer alive. So it was a piece of clothing that maybe didn’t look important, but it had a great deal of sentimental value.”

Stories like that are familiar to Priscilla Andrews, who heads up the lost-and-found department at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Her team once enlisted the help of a funeral home to track down the owner of a container of ashes left on the counter at a rental car agency.

Andrews had no ashes in her office when I spoke with her, but she did have about 40 cell phones, 30 wallets, 11 laptops, a dozen checkbooks, two dozen canes, a car stereo and a chainsaw. “The chainsaw may have come from the TSA. Those folks have enough to deal with, so we help out by taking in the items people leave behind at the security checkpoints.” All cell phones stay turned on, says Andrews, “in case the owner calls. And as soon as a laptop comes in we turn it on right away to see if we can find some identification. We know how important some of these things are to people.”

Knowing that may have been some reassurance to a Seattle-area man we’ll call “Bill” who recently experienced the real-life version of the business traveler’s nightmare. After arriving home one night, he realized that he'd left his non-password-protected laptop “with everything — I mean everything — business plans, personal finances, everything” on it in the basket of the baggage cart he'd pushed out into the airport parking garage. “I was totally freaking out and having a full-fledged anxiety attack. After my wife and my two children, that laptop is the single most important thing in the world to me.”

Yikes! I know how the story ends, yet I'm breaking out in a sympathy-sweat just writing about it.

Do lost laptops come back?
“Bill” rushed back to the airport to search for his laptop. A tense hour-and-a-half later, he found it safe and sound at an airline baggage service counter.

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Now he has advice for other well-mannered-but-distracted-travelers.

“Most people don’t go to the airport to steal laptops or take your stuff. But most people also don’t have the time or energy to take something they’ve found to the lost-and-found office. And most lost-and-found offices aren’t open 24 hours anyway. So if someone finds something, they’re going to probably end up giving it to the first official-looking person they see.” That could be someone working at a car rental counter, an information booth, a store or a restaurant. “It's not necessarily going to be a security officer who can walk it over to the lost-and-found. So you need to retrace your steps and think like someone who just found a laptop.”

Improve your odds
While he was racing around the airport looking for his laptop, “Bill” says a woman at one of the information desks told him to stop being so anxious because 95 percent of laptops are found.  “I have no idea where she got that number, or if she just made it up to calm me down, but I thought that was nice of her to try.”

Sea-Tac's Andrews says that number is fairly accurate, and they have a return rate of 85 to 90 percent. She offered these tips for travelers who want to improve their changes of getting lost items returned:

File a lost property report —quickly
Most airports and airlines have phone numbers and other “how to” information posted on their Web sites to get you get started.

Keep track of your stuff
That should go without saying, but if you can pinpoint when and where you may have lost something — on the airplane, in a certain food court, in the ticket lobby — you have a much better chance of finding it.

Check the local rules
In some airports, anything found inside the terminal ends up in the airport's lost-and-found. In others, lost items can fall under an airline's jurisdiction. For example, at Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport, where American Airlines is the major tenant, lost items found in any terminal space used by that airline end up in the airline's lost and found.

Call
Pick up the phone and call the airport’s lost-and-found office, your airline, the airport police or your airport's TSA office. Even if you get an answering machine, leave as many details as possible about your lost item and where you think you may have left it — and don’t forget to leave a number where you can be reached.

Mark your stuff
Many items never get back to their owners because there’s no way to tell who owns what. So if you really love that black raincoat, put your name in it. If you want to be sure you can locate your laptop, tape your business card to it and jot down the machine's serial number somewhere. Etch your name on your iPod and other portable electronic items, and put address stickers in your books.

Don't get snippy
Be nice to the folks who work in the airport lost-and-found offices. Sure, you may be freaking out about your misplaced laptop with all that personal information on it, but it sometimes takes a day or two for an item to make its way into the system.

Don't give up
Sadly, many things left behind on airplanes and in airports don’t ever make it back their owners. But some surprising things do — and it's not just the feats of wonder performed by the people in the lost and found departments. I once left a beat-up notebook filled with all my graduate school research notes in an airplane seat pocket. I assumed the book would get tossed, but to my amazement, someone on the cleaning crew opened the notebook, found the tiny address sticker on the inside back cover, and actually took the time to drop the book off at my house on his way home.

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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