Doh! I left my laptop on the plane. Here's how I got it back.

David Landsel, January 18, 2010
Fares from Washington DC:

    The gentleman at United’s baggage service counter in LaGuardia’s central terminal had it right.

    “There’s something about the air on those planes,” he teased. I wasn’t really listening. I was too busy admiring my banged-up old laptop.   

    It had been approximately three hours since I’d lost my Hewlett Packard DV2500, much missed during that time not because it is the greatest piece of technology ever to fly off the shelves at my local Best Buy, but because, like a fool, I hadn’t backed the thing up for months.

    Last seen: In the seatback pocket belonging to seat 26A on my flight from Chicago-O’Hare. At that time, I’d issued myself a stern reminder to not leave it behind. But, like the guy at the baggage counter pointed out, that pressurized cabin air can make you go stupid.

    In fact, travel at any altitude or speed can be discombobulating. Just ask Yo-Yo Ma, who famously left his $2.5 million cello in the trunk of a New York City taxi.

    Like Mr. Ma, I walked off that plane without my laptop and never looked back. Not, at least, until the unpacking process began at home an hour later.

    So many cell phones, wallets, drivers licenses, passports, lucky blue shirts, all gone, all disappeared in my travels. I’m so loss-prone, I’ve now programmed myself to assume that everything’s gone, before I can actually confirm. Sometimes I’m wrong. A lot of the time, I’m right.

    This time, however, there was no turning out coat pockets. You either have your busted-up, out-of-date laptop computer with you, or you don’t. I didn’t.

    SENDING OUT AN SOS
    Luggage gets tagged, it gets bar-coded. The possessions are zipped up in a fashionable bag. Sometimes the bag is locked, if you’re smart. If you’re really smart, you shipped your things ahead of you. Either way, all this stuff can usually be traced. There is a system.

    A lost item, on a plane, sitting there in the seatback pocket for the cleaners or the next passenger to discover? That’s really tempting the Fates.

    To say I felt helpless is putting it mildly. Everything on my computer, gone, just like that. My first reaction was to call United’s baggage hotline, where a computer gave me the number for the lost and found office at LaGuardia, where nobody picked up the phone. It was three days before Christmas, so this was not unexpected. Less expected: The voicemail was full, and not accepting any more messages.

    Within an hour or so, I was at the office in person, where – miracle – my laptop had already been turned in. Had it not been there, well, forget calling, I was told. Fill out a form online. Best advice if you ever want to see your valuables again: be more proactive: just turn around and go back to the airport.  

    GOOD TO KNOW
    An online form sounded like an easy solution for next time; unfortunately, I could find no such thing on United’s Web site.

    According to Robin Urbanski, spokesperson for United, what the folks at LaGuardia had probably meant was that I could send an email reporting my lost item. She also referred me back to the hotline that gave me the number I called that nobody answered. 

    Pick an airline, the reporting process appears to be pretty much the same: If you lose something that is not baggage, call the airline’s baggage services at the airport in question anyway. Some airlines will give you those numbers on their Web sites; for other airlines you'll have to call their 800 number. Like United, JetBlue has email addresses for initiating contact online; however, each airport it serves has a dedicated address for lost and found.  See ways to contact baggage offices and lost and found.

    JetBlue recommends initiating contact no more than 4 hours after the loss – this turns out to be a very useful recommendation, seeing as found items unclaimed within 48 hours are sent to the airline’s central offices in Salt Lake, according to spokesman Bryan Baldwin. Helpfully, local offices tag each found item as if it were a piece of luggage, enabling anyone with access to the system to track it down for you.

    For their part, United would give no time frame for beginning or ending a search – United’s Urbanski said that searches are “indefinite.” As in, cases are open until they’re closed.

    Bear in mind, no matter which airline you’re dealing with, recovering your lost items depends a great deal on whether or not the cabin cleaners that tidy up after every flight, a service generally performed by a third-party contractor, and a) find the item you left behind, or b) do the right thing and turn the item in.   

    Even if items are turned in and processed, it turns out, there’s no guarantee they will ever be claimed. Urbanski said that United hangs on to what it finds for “several months,” after which time a “variety of things” could be done, including donating them to charity, though she didn’t offer specifics. After 90 days, JetBlue sends unclaimed items on to a third party, which puts them up for sale.

    While nobody was able to give hard statistics on how many items are orphaned, retrieved or left behind each year, one LaGuardia insider who asked not to be named told me I’d be surprised at “how many laptops we have lying around.” Maybe some charity is about to get lucky.

    One final tip: you do label the valuable electronics (cell phones, cameras, laptops, DVD players, etc) that you bring on board with you with your phone number, don’t you? If not, get out that labeler right now and do it.

    David Landsel is the travel editor of The New York Post.

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