Leave Something on a Plane This Holiday Season? It Might Not be Gone Forever

Southwest Airlines returns tens of thousands of items a year, including Jamie Lynn Spears' iPad, a $25,000 ring and stuffed animals.

A girl and Hurley the Guinea Pig are reunited. Once, the airline only saved things worth more than $100, but realized there were other kinds of value. Courtesy Southwest Airlines
A girl and Hurley the Guinea Pig are reunited. Once, the airline only saved things worth more than $100, but realized there were other kinds of value. Courtesy Southwest Airlines
By Brad Kava

In her 30 years as a baggage manager for Southwest Airlines, Laura Adams has seen anything you can think of left behind on a plane -- engagement rings, week-old dirty diapers, piles of cash, wallets, iPods, iPads, eye and i glasses, enough laptops to reach the ceiling and Britney Spears's sister's computer.

Her job is to get the items back to the owners, a challenge few other airlines take on. It costs money, takes time and the only return is the good will of passengers who left behind items of sentimental or financial value. 

Last year she returned 39 percent of the 55,000 forgotten items to their owners, up from 2 percent three decades ago. Keep in mind much of that includes books, diapers, sunglasses or cheap earbuds, which people might not file a claim on.

"This is a huge opportunity for customer service and we're committed to that," says Adams, who started as one of three people overseeing luggage for the airline and now, 30 years later, is the director of thousands of employees at 100 airports. "It feels good to bring that satisfaction to a customer."

The Unexpected Return of my iPod and Custom Earbuds

I should know. I was one of them. A month ago, I left a custom-made iPod and expensive earbuds worth $800 on a Southwest plane between Florida and California and I was heartbroken. I put them in the seat back pocket in front of me and fell asleep. I didn't realize I had forgotten them for two days, when I read an article about how airlines may change the policy of not allowing electronics to be on during takeoff.

I was always very careful with them and I'd never left anything behind before. There was no way I could afford to replace them. I figured they were gone. Someone else picked them up and was enjoying my music. My friends told me there wasn't a prayer of finding them in a lost and found.

But I filled out the online forms at Southwest's website. For two weeks, they apprised me that nothing they had matched my items. And then -- VOILA! -- I got an email saying they thought they found my stuff.

Yeah, right, I thought. They may have found an iPod and maybe some cheap earbuds, but not mine.

I had to open a FedEx account to pay for shipping, which is one way the airline saves on the service,  and I waited only a couple of days. My iPod arrived. It felt like a bit of a holiday miracle, but they said they couldn't find the earbuds. I emailed one more time, thanking them, and asking about the earbuds. Five minutes later, an agent got back to me. He found them and said he'd pay for the shipping. (THANKS, Craig. Much appreciated.) 

Adams says this system is one of her proudest accomplishments at the airline. She pays an outside service to manage and return the goods picked up by flight attendants, passengers or maintenance people on the plane. By contract, the retrieval company has asked not to be named.

As the volume of things left behind grew to a stupendous 55,000 a year, it was too much for her employees to handle. The system had started with carbon paper reports and golf carts transporting items from planes to airport offices. Now it's centralized in Dallas.

Southwest holds goods for 60 days in a 20,000-square-foot warehouse. After that, they donate them to the Salvation Army, which counted $250,000 of charity from the airline last year. Southwest doesn't take a tax write-off because the employee time to do the paperwork wouldn't be worth it.

In contrast, the world's largest airline, American, gives lost items to the airport lost and found, each of which has different amounts of time they hold the goods. Five days is typical, and if you've changed planes during a trip, or attendants didn't find it for several legs of flight, there's no telling where your items turn up.

"You would think most items will be found at your preferred destination," says Adams. "But experience tells us that's not what happens. You get off in Baltimore and the flight may have gone to Houston or the West Coast."

This is the second anniversary of the new service. In its first year, 12 percent of the goods were returned and it more than doubled the second year.

"You could say I've seen it all," says Adams. "I don't think there's anything I haven't seen left behind. Wrapped gifts; 200 coats a month and 500-900 in the winter, car seats (I'm not sure how they got the kids home from the airport); business documents, portfolios, blueprints, medication, drugs, prescription sunglasses, gloves. We find earbuds by the thousands."

Her wildest was $1,100 of cash in a wallet with no identification and a prototype for a new kind of computer glasses with a camera built into them. One of her most rewarding was finding a computer given to a woman by her mother for her 21st birthday. (see slide show)

"Everything we find is important to someone," she says. "Hands down it's one of the best things I've been a part of. It's a win for everybody."

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