Lost and Found Is An Airline Failure Few People Think About

Alaska Airlines does a nice job taking care of customers one at a time – not always and in every case, of course, but on the whole my dealings with them have been just a touch more ‘human’ than average for the U.S. airline industry. So it didn’t surprise me to see this tweet about Alaska successfully recovering a laptop left on one of their planes.

This shouldn’t be a standout, but how often do you expect to actually receive valuables returned to you if you’ve left them on a plane?

  • Planes are supposed to be cleaned between each flight, seat pockets checked for trash for instance
  • Airlines (at least most airlines besides Southwest) know exactly who is seated in every seat
  • And they have contact information for passengers who book direct with them or who are members of the carrier’s frequent flyer program

Airlines have computer systems that can append notes to passenger records. Gate agents have computers. Flight attendants have tablets. Airline IT investment is massive.

It shouldn’t even take filing a lost and found claim to get your stuff back – the airline should be able to be proactive!

The reality though is much more complicated. Planes often get the barest once overs between flights if they are even cleaned at all. There’s very little incentive for contract cleaners or airline employees to go out of their way for customers. That takes extra effort that’s rarely rewarded.

I’ve forgotten jackets on planes many times. Usually the flight attendant working domestic first class just forgets to return them, and I get off the plane – only to realize immediately what I’ve done. That’s an easy recovery. The only real mistake I’ve made was in Singapore.

I once left a camera on board a Singapore Airlines flight from Bali to Singapore. I realized I’d left it by the time I made it to the train to change terminals. I went back to the gate, but there was no one there. I proceeded to Singapore’s lounge, told a staff member, and they got to work. The staff member found me while I was still in the lounge and let me know the camera would be waiting for me on the jetway boarding my next flight. Indeed there was an officer on the jetway who checked my ID and returned my camera.

That was a lucky break, and I was a premium cabin passenger on an airline that has the ability to go the extra mile in service. Airlines can and should be able to replicate it nearly every single time however.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I left my backpack in baggage claim in Changi once. I took it off waiting for the luggage to show up and just completely forgot about it. Was outside security and heading for the taxi line when I realized i didn’t have it.

    I went up to the nearest officer and told them and I had it back in 5 minutes. Apparently they flagged it in video probably just minutes after I forgot it and grabbed it.

    There was a very expensive laptop and a Fuji camera and full set of lenses in the bag. You could tell they had taken everything out of it but it was all there. Got quite a talking to too about what could have happened to the bag and admonishment to not do it again.

  2. Yeah, Alaska didn’t help with a jacket forgotten in the seat back pocket even when I told them right away. I was told to file a claim online. Surprise surprise, despite their “best efforts” it was never found. Just a jacket, but still. I doubt a human ever even looked at the claim, as it’s outsourced to a third party.

  3. Asiana first class LAX to Seoul. Left my iPad in the seat storage area. No luck getting it back. No sympathy either. Disappointing for F

  4. Did manage to get my kindle back a few years ago after leaving it in the seat back pocket on an alaska flight. Had to fill out a form, but it got turned in, and they let me pick it up from their warehouse (?) in Seattle since I’m local, rather than waiting for them to mail it to me. But yes, it would be nice if they could do that proactively.

  5. Left headphones in Swiss First Class. Lost and Found was recording where I left detailed message. Didn’t expect to get headphones back, but Swiss never had the courtesy to even return my call.

  6. I have never had things returned to me.

    Eastern Airlines was notified within an hour of landing but they did nothing.

    I left a lousy and almost broken set of generic noise canceling headphones on US Air. Nothing.

    0-2 record.

    However, I did leave my noise canceling headphones on the seats at Burbank Airport and when I went back to retrieve it, it was gone. However, they called me soon afterwards. Thank you Hollywood Burbank Airport

  7. I did the same stupid thing on an American flight and the laptop was there when I went back to the terminal the next day.

  8. I left a jacket on a AA plane after landing in LHR in Sept. By the time I realized it, I had already transfered to T2 for my Swiss flight. LHR staff found it though, called me while I was still in the airport, and arranged for me to pick it up on my return transit through LHR a few days later. Excellent handing all around (although AA’s lost and found on-line service was worthless and still thinks the jacket is lost).

  9. I once left my laptop in a seat pocket in front of seat 2B on a United Flight. I asked the gate agent to have someone look for it, which they did and reported back that it was gone. A girl in the waiting area overheard and said “I saw the flight attendant Lisa take it out of your seat pocket after you left”. I asked that they page Lisa who was in the break room. Lisa swore she hadn’t seen it. I told the gate agent that if laptop wasn’t returned immediately, I would call the police. Shortly after the gate agent advised Lisa of my decision, another Flight Attendant named Mark came out with the laptop and said, “Oh we just happened to find it”. Right.

  10. United, SFO to SIN, August 2019. Left my laptop in 2A. Released right after I departed. Could rebound. Airplane cleaned by SIN Airport. NEVER FOUND. Disappointing to know that the SIN cleaning crew didn’t think I’d be needing my laptop. Honesty wasn’t the policy for SIN Airport. (United only keeps the Lost & Found search open for 30 days. Seems like a short time considering the International collection possibilities).

  11. I’ve had similar bad luck the one or two times I’ve left something on a plane. Of course I know sometimes they do go to lengths to return items as I’ve heard the announcements over airport PAs for specific individuals to return to gate X to retrieve an item.

    I’ve been super lucky when leaving things on trains: once in Brussels and once in Tomyo.

    One August a couple years ago I left a nice DSLR camera on a Belgian Rail train from Amsterdam to Brussels when I got off in Brussels. I didn’t realize until at least a couple days later so I completed an online lost & found form. Four months later I got an email from someone with Belgian Rail apologizing for not following up sooner and telling me they had the camera in their possession. It could only be picked up in person, though, so he said he’d hold onto it until I was back in Belgium the next July or that I could have a friend retrieve it if I sent an authorization form. My friend picked it up some time in the spring.

    About 5 years ago I left my wife’s iPhone on Japan Rail’s metro loop one evening in Tokyo. We realized about an hour later and with find-my-iphone we located it in the station office a few stops down. Someone had turned it in to the lost & found. When we got to the station the office was closed for the new year long weekend holiday and our flight out was the next day. The ticket office was still open so we were able to use Google translate, screen shots of the find-my-iphone map, and my calling the lost phone to work with the ticket sales employees to determine exactly where the phone was and they kindly retrieved it for us. It was like a hurried treasure hunt for them in the office.

  12. Left a Kindle on Delta and landed at MCO. Discovered the loss at the hotel. Called Delta. MCO already had it at the lost and found waiting for me.

  13. Left Bose headphones in Seat 1A on a direct 90 minute flight. Called AA, filed lost item report, and called local airport multiple times. I never heard a thing back. It can’t be that hard, but there is no incentive for them to help and significant gain to be had by staying silent and keeping the item.

  14. Swiss, headphones in J. I realized it in the baggage claim arriving in JFK. I had them back 15 minutes later.

  15. I left a sweater on an ANA domestic flight from Tokyo to Okayama and got it back in Tokyo when I returned later that same day. I left my iPad on a jetBlue flight to JFK and called them when I got home and realized it was missing. They had already found it and logged it in their systems. I picked it up a few days later when I was traveling again.

  16. This summer traveling on AA during midflight I put a valuable Italian leather jacket in the bin over 2A (dumb, dumb, I know, I had thought I would wear it during the flight and hadn’t given it to the FA when boarding). In the rush to get to our next flight I pulled my carry on bag down but forgot the jacket. Realized it just as we were boarding our next flight. Got on phone with AA who had me go online to fill out the form, which I was able to send off with a picture of the jacket just seconds before I had to shut down my laptop. 24 hours later, an email from AA: “We haven’t found it but we’re still looking.” 48 hours later, a second email from AA: “Good news! We have found your missing item! How do you want us to get it back to you?!” I opted to pay for 2nd day FedEx delivery, and it arrived safe and sound.

    2 take away lessons for me: never put anything other than luggage in the overhead bin (you’re not going to forget your luggage), and put some identifying info in your valuable items to help the airline personnel verify it as yours.

    Thank you to the honest crew (FA or cleaning) or passenger who found that jacket, which now has even more value to me!

  17. Last year with Cathay Pacific I left my laptop on the plane. 15 minutes later I reported this at a CP transfer desk. Half an hour later I got it back.

  18. Before the good experience with Cathay Pacific, I left my phone in the business class lounge. At the gate, 5 minutes after leaving the lounge, I told the Malaysia Airlines staff. They did not even bother to call the lounge and said to contact lost & found.

    I never got an answer, even after repeated emails. Airlines may think that this is not a big deal, but the reality is that I -and others- chose airlines not only on the basis of price and onboard experience.

    After this, I only fly MAS when there is no sensible other option.

  19. I was working in a near empty J cabin on a JAL flight Sydney – Narita. I had a fair bit of paper work and when I finished just prior to landing I stacked it neatly and put it in seatback for disposal. On my arrival back in Narita a week later someone was waiting at the gate for me with my paper work neatly wrapped and was then presented to me. Fantastic service even though I didnt actually want it back! Didn’t have the heart to say anything so waited until I was through transit and discretely disposed of it

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