Airlines strive to reunite passengers with lost items




Posted on February 22, 2012 at 11:05 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 22 at 11:39 PM

DALLAS — It's one of those inevitable consequences of life on the go: You get to your destination, but your stuff doesn't.

Business traveler Gray Rasmussen of Albuquerque remembers when he walked off a Southwest Airlines flight last year without his jacket. The coat wasn't expensive, but it was a gift from his wife who had taken great care to have his company logo proudly stitched on the chest.

"It was something that meant a lot to me," he said. "My wife had it made for me... it was a gift."

Once the jacket was gone, he assumed, "I'll never see it again."

Not necessarily.

Many airlines have exhaustive lost-and-found departments that attempt to reunite passengers with the millions of personal items they leave on airplanes and in terminals every year.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, which carried 88 million passengers in 2010, reports handling the largest number of lost items, said Laura Adams, director of Southwest's baggage services. Since Southwest is one of the few carriers that doesn't charge for bags, Adams reasons, people haul more stuff on board.

"Just by pure volume, we do have more things that come through," she said.

All of those things left behind all over the country eventually pass through Southwest Airlines' 4,000-square-foot unmarked warehouse in Dallas. Unclaimed items stay there 30 to 90 days before they are then donated to charities.

"For me, I think probably the most interesting is when I see assisted devices," Adams said, as she pointed to a bin filled with crutches. "That probably goes to my heart more than anything."

She sees everything from the expected (keys, wallets, computers and books) to the very unexpected (urns, expensive jewelry, prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs).

On a recent tour, Adams pointed to an orange traffic barrel someone checked onto a flight and never claimed.

"We don't know why they checked it, and we don't know why they didn't claim it," she said.

Southwest processes nearly 20,000 lost items every month. Most belongings don't contain the owner's contact information and aren't even reported as being lost, making it difficult for the airline to return them.

Fewer than 10 percent of the items the carrier recovers are actually returned.

"We really depend on the customer's ability to describe their item," Adams said. "You usually know what size you are, so we ask, 'Give us a size? Give us a brand?' That helps us."

Customers must first report the lost item by calling 1-800-FLY-SWA. The airline hopes to be able to accept reports on its Web site later this year.

Employees then work as detectives — digging through bags, opening laptops, and peeking through wallets looking for anything identifiable.

Adams recalls one agent watching a family's home video on their lost digital camera for clues to its owner.

"He followed the story long enough to realize it was a new family and their first trip to Disneyland, and then he was able to zoom in and listen and was able to retrieve the name," Adams said. "He called and the man said, 'Oh, my gosh, you don't know how much trouble I've been in with my wife. This was the first time we took our child to Disneyland!'"

Fort Worth-based American Airlines also spends weeks trying to reunite items with their owners, spokesman Tim Smith said. He said the carrier doesn't keep track how many items pass through its lost-and-found department.

"Numerically, the majority of items are not returned," he wrote in an e-mail. "That is not for lack of effort... it is because numerically, a significant number of items that are left behind are small, inexpensive items."

American, like many airlines, then sells the un-returned items to a salvage company. The money earned from selling its customers' things helps pay for the carrier's lost-and-found department.

"It certainly does not pay for that total cost," Smith said. "Lost-and-found is a customer service — not a money-maker."

Southwest Airlines decided four years ago to stop selling its customers' missing belongings. Many of the items are donated to the Salvation Army in Dallas.

"We don't want to profit on our customer's property," Adams said. "We just feel like that is not who Southwest Airlines is."

The Salvation Army then sells the items at its ten retail stores scattered around North Texas.

Patrick Patey with the Dallas Salvation Army says the partnership has led a to surge of quality items at its thrift stores, including nice luggage and electronics.

"We probably get more iPods, Flip cameras, cell phones," because of the airline's donation, he said. "It does bring in things we wouldn't normally get."

Selling Southwest's donations generates nearly $157,000 a year for the Salvation Army's substance abuse program. "It's a very important donation stream we value highly," Patey said.

Still, Southwest says it wishes it could reunite every lost item with its owner.

"It takes what the customer has been upset about and really turns it around for them — even something this small," said Dillard Martin, a 15-year employee, as he proudly held a missing wallet he had just matched to a Washington state woman.

"It's a lot of gratification for the employees, as well," Adams added. Not to mention for the passenger on those rare occasions the airline arranges a reunion.

One week after filing a report for his missing jacket, Rasmussen — the business traveler from New Mexico — got unexpected news: The airline had found his coat and was mailing it back.

"I just couldn't believe I got a coat back," he said. "It was nice, really nice... it just blew us away!"