October 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio October 1998 Current Issue
October 1998 On TravelPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

On Travel


How to Track Down Missing Items

What you should know about lost-and-found policies of airlines, hotels and rental car agencies

The wristwatch was a present from my siblings that I'd worn since high school graduation without incident. But somehow I lost it between breakfast in Helsinki and the shuttle ride home from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Ultimately I received, to my surprise, a package from Finnair containing my watch along with notes for a story I hadn't even realized were missing. An attendant on the Helsinki-JFK flight had found them in the seatback pouch in front of my assigned seat.

Unfortunately, travelers' lost-and-found experiences don't always end so happily. The following outlines how the tracking process generally works for the places you're most likely to lose something - an airplane cabin, hotel room or rental car. To track down items left on a plane, call the reservations number and ask for the lost-and-found department, a customer service representative or a local number. Call the local branch of the car agency or the specific hotel for items left there.

Leaving something on an aircraft is risky business. The major airlines concur that there's less than a 50 percent chance you'll see it again. "Items clearly marked with some sort of identification stand the best odds of being returned," says Dave Castelveter, a US Airways spokesperson. However, commonly lost objects - glasses, keys, gloves, cellular phones - don't usually bear an ID.

The process starts with the cleaning of the cabin, done after every flight by the flight crew and more thoroughly by professionals when the craft is put to bed at night. If cleaners find an object in the seatback, the chance they can trace it to you goes up, since they can use the seat number to get your contact information. But returning unmarked items in the overhead bin requires a lot more sleuthing.

"When employees find personal belongings onboard, ideally they should tag them and mark the seat number - if possible - and flight number, as well as the date and time," says Toni Rivers, manager of system tracing for Continental Airlines' baggage headquarters in Houston. "But realistically, that doesn't always happen."

Items are forwarded to the carrier's lost-and-found desk in the airport, where they are held for five to seven days, on average. There, clerks try to find the owners by looking up seat assignments and using any other clues available. When the clerks are unsuccessful, the items are cataloged and stored, waiting for a call from you. Be prepared to describe the item you've lost in painstaking detail.

Unclaimed objects finally are sent to a central location, usually where the airline's mishandled baggage is held. There they sit for 30 to 90 days before being sold to a salvage company, auctioned off or given to the employees who found them. (Airlines reportedly generate millions in revenue by selling passengers' lost or mishandled possessions.)

Hotels and rental car agencies also stress that the surest protection against permanent loss is labeling. However, since these companies can trace ownership faster and easier than the airlines, it doesn't seem as if IDs would be as important. Or are they?

All major hotel chains and rental car companies contacted claim rooms and cars are searched thoroughly once travelers have left; any possessions left behind are quickly matched with the client and sent to lost and found. "If the items aren't shipped immediately, then at least [the customers] are called to let them know the hotel has them," says Hanne Dittler, vice president of rooms for Westin Hotels.

Unlike the airlines, however, hotels and rental car agencies don't send lost items to a central clearinghouse. Generally, the items remain where they were found for 15 to 90 days, then are sold to a salvager, donated to charity or given to the employee who turned them in. Hotels and car companies do boast a return rate of about 75 percent, though.

Avis spokesperson Lou Cafiero's best advice: "Give yourself plenty of time to look throughout the car. Most people rush off to catch their planes."

With hotels, travelers can contact not only the lost-and-found department but also the concierge and management, says Katrin Lieberwirth, speaking for Hyatt Hotels. "Hyatt keeps a log book of all items lost at each hotel," she says. "It serves as an immediate reference when guests call."

She offers these methods for preventing loss: "For short stays, unpack only those items you need every day; leave those items needed only occasionally in your suitcase. And shake out your bed coverings thoroughly before you check out; often, clothing and other items might be hidden."

Roger Slavens is a senior associate editor at Frequent Flyer magazine, a sister publication of M&C. This article was adapted from Frequent Flyer.

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