Between check-in, security, and navigating a gigantic airport, flying is complicated enough. But you have not begun to see the kind of hoops an airport can make you jump through until you try to reclaim something you’ve lost there.

Washington D.C. resident, “Alice” (not her real name; she prefers to remain anonymous), learned that firsthand. After a recent Delta flight that landed at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI), she realized she’d left her computer in her seat on the plane. Alice immediately contacted the airport’s Lost and Found department, which directed her to contact Delta. When she tweeted Delta, the airline told her to fill out an online form. She asked if she could call someone to speak about the matter, only to have the airline again refer her to the form and effectively say, “We’ll call you.”

“Someone called [about] my computer and hung up,” Alice tells Yahoo Travel. “When I called back, the number was disconnected.”

The computer remains A.W.O.L. “No additional info or call from Delta,” she reports. “Nothing. It’s frustrating because you can’t even call anyone to tell them you lost the item. I filed a report less than an hour after the flight. They could have checked immediately and it may have been found.“

Such is the ordeal of losing something while flying, which is shockingly easy for us travelers to do. Digging for your boarding pass and ID at the check-in line is a prime opportunity for keys to fly away as you pull out your wallet or purse. During your federally mandated strip tease at Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening, you’re separating your laptop and toiletries from your bags, thus increasing your chances of leaving an item behind.

"Keys and IDs — that’s what [passengers] leave behind the most,” Los Angeles International Airport spokesperson Katherine Alvarado tells Yahoo Travel. According to the L.A. Times, during a one-month period at LAX last year, the TSA reported it found 154 laptops, 98 cellphones, 229 driver’s licenses, 18 iPads, and 32 wallets —  3,705 items in all. The story’s the same at other airports; passengers leave behind about 18,000 items every year at Newark Liberty International Airport’s security checkpoint and 12,500 objects (including 600 laptops) at Philadelphia’s.

What’s even more frustrating than losing an item at an airport is dealing with all the bureaucratic runaround it usually takes to retrieve it. With so many jurisdictions, entities, and authorities that collectively operate the average major U.S. airport, knowing whom to contact to get your item back really is a matter of that annoying question everyone asks after you lose something: “Where did you have it last?”

“It all depends on where you leave it,” Alvarado says. “If you leave [your item] at TSA security, it would be the TSA lost and found. If you leave it in the aircraft, it’s the airline. And if you leave it somewhere in the airport, like the bathroom, it would be airport police.”

That’s a lot of people to contact, as Tampa, Florida activist Nadine Smith found out when, before a Southwest flight to Las Vegas, she left her carry-on in the TSA screening line. “I’d been traveling so much and checking my bag,” Smith tells Yahoo Travel. “At security, I must have assumed I’d checked it.” She didn’t realize her bag was missing until she was on the plane. She says she tweeted the airline for help.

“I thought they were going to put it on the next flight to Vegas,” Smith says about her bag, but the airline balked. “Lost and found has it,” was the response Smith said she got from the airline. Unable to get her bag until she returned to Tampa, she had to buy new clothes in Vegas.

Beth Farrar tells a similar story; she lost an expensive necklace, a birthday gift from her husband, during a trip from New York City to Rochester, N.Y. She had to file paperwork with both airports, the airline (JetBlue), and even the MetropolitanTransportation Authority (MTA), which operates the AirTrain she had taken from New York City to John F. Kennedy International Airport. “It just kind of seemed never-ending and impossible,” she says of the process. “Some places were really great about letting you know they had even received your claim; for instance, JetBlue got right back to me. Other places, it was kind of like sending it into a black hole. And they tell you flat-out they’re not going to get back to you unless they find the item and in some cases not at all.”

Both Farrar and Smith had happy endings: Smith got her bag back (“Everybody was nice,” Smith says); Farrar’s necklace turned up as well. Still, the process was anything but easy. “It was frustrating,” Farrar says of her experience.

What to do when you lose something in an airport

It may be frustrating, but Alvarado from the TSA says that when you lose something in an airport, making multiple calls (and filing multiple claims) is your best bet in retrieving it. “If you can’t remember where you left something, cover your bases and contact everyone: airlines, the airport police’s lost and found, and TSA’s lost and found,” she says. And don’t just call. "We always advise to call and email,” Alvarado advises.

Tweeting works, too. Portland resident Michael Orenstein recently received an urgent text from his wife who was on an international flight; while watching the in-flight movie, she realized she’d left her new turquoise ring in the security bin back at Portland International Airport. Orenstein sprung into action, tweeting both the airline and airport. He also called a representative from the airport who physically went to TSA to find the ring and told him where he could pick it up. 

“[My wife] hadn’t even finished the movie before I had the ring in my possession,“ Orenstein says. "She was blown away. She couldn’t believe it all worked out.”

Also, just as we learned in kindergarten, putting your name on things can make it easier to get them back should you lose them. “Put a luggage tag or tape a business card on items, especially loose items you keep in pockets, like cell phones,” Alvarado says. If you don’t have a label, some kind of identifying mark — a bandana, for instance — will do. 

If you do lose something, the TSA also has a searchable “Lost and Found” database. Just type in the airport code and it shows you the phone number of that airport’s lost items department.

An ounce of prevention…

Of course, the best tip in dealing with the runaround that comes with losing something while traveling is to not lose it in the first place. That’s especially hard to do in a hectic airport, where the controlled chaos that is a security screening line can increase the chance of forgetting something. 

That’s why Alvarado recommends packing smartly. “Travel as compact as possible,” she says. “If you don’t have to carry your keys, change or loose items in your pockets, don’t,” she says, noting such items are often lost in the TSA security line when people empty their pockets into a tray that they forget to pick up. “If you don’t need your keys or any other small item on your person, put them in your purse or carry-on.”

Alvarado also recommends keeping your stuff together in one bag. She says, “There’s less chance of losing it” — and “it” could mean either your stuff or your sanity.

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