This Is What Happens When You Leave Your Belongings Behind on a Plane

“I have done flights where passports, laptops, handbags, glasses, crutches and all manner of clothing has been forgotten."

Airport lost and found
Photo: Getty Images

Recently I was flying home after visiting my family with my husband and son. At the end of a 6-hour flight with a toddler, I was exhausted, and didn’t do the usual “check the seat pocket in front of you” search that I normally would.

Of course, 10 minutes after getting off the plane, I realized I had left my Kindle in the pocket in front of me.

I immediately called JetBlue’s lost and found, and was told to file a report and that I would be contacted when my Kindle was recovered. I filed a report right away and waited.

A week later, I was told my item had not been found but the airline would keep looking. A few weeks after that, I was told it was permanently lost.

It seemed crazy to me. The airline crew cleans the plane as soon as we land, and they would likely find a big item like a Kindle. To me, it seems like they should know it belonged to me — since I was in a designated seat — and be able to hold it for me at lost and found.

Why was it so hard to get a lost item back?

My experience seems to be a typical one.

Empty Seats In Airplane
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Frequent traveler Maryam Sabbagh said what’s most frustrating to her is that even if you realize you forgot something as soon as you get off a plane, you'll most likely not be able to go back and get it.

“On a flight earlier this year, I left a $300 pair of BOSE headphones and saw I only had the case upon exiting, but I tried to go back and they said no,” she said. “They told me if it was found they would turn it in to the lost and found. I sat at that airport’s lost and found for hours and eventually they said that they didn’t find them. Shocker. I called every possible airport and Delta and they told me they were nowhere to be found and the baggage handlers were the ones who cleaned after that flight so I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get those back, only used them once for this trip.”

Or if travelers do get their items back, it can be quite a hassle.

Keishi Nukina, aviation blogger at KN Aviation, was recently flying from Amsterdam to Vienna on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, and put his laptop in the seat pocket and accidentally left it there.

“After realizing that, I returned and I inquired at a number of counters, but none of them could confirm whether they found my laptop,” she said. “In the end, one person confirmed [that it was found] but said I would have to wait until the laptop is delivered to the lost and found office.”

So off to lost and found he went, where he submitted a form, then was told it could be a few hours to a full day before the laptop was delivered. He left and went back the next day to pick it up.

“Needless to say, it was a lot of hassle, though my own fault, so make sure to check your belongings every single time before you disembark,” he said. “I will hopefully not make the same mistake again. At the same time, I was glad that the flight attendants or cleaners found the laptop and delivered it to the lost and found center.”

Brett Manders, an international airline pilot, author of the book “Behind the Flight Deck Door - Insider Knowledge About Everything You've Ever Wanted to Ask a Pilot” and founder of website Behind the Flight Deck Door, said he’s been amazed at what passengers leave behind.

“I have done flights where passports, laptops, handbags, glasses, crutches and all manner of clothing has been forgotten,” he said.

He explained how these items are found by the airline crew.

“As you leave the aircraft, in all likelihood, the aircraft will be departing again soon,” he said. “This is where the aircraft is in a turnaround. This turnaround could be in as little as 20 minutes for a small turbo prop commuter plane or up to several hours for an international wide body aircraft.”

He said that if the cabin crew stays on board, they go through and do a sweep through of the aircraft. But if the cabin crew depart the aircraft, “an army of cleaners arrive on board.”

“It is quite an impressive thing to watch,” Manders said. “The crew go through and empty all the seat pockets and overhead lockers, checking for lost items, placing them on the seats. If goods are found, they are passed on to ground staff who will take the items to an airline or airport lost property.”

If the item is valuable, such as a passport, money, or electronics, the airline will attempt to contact the person, he said. Otherwise it is up to the individual to contact the lost property department and try to hunt the item down.

“If the lost item or owner is found, the next challenge is arranging collection,” he said. “If you leave something on board like a passport, it is quite easy to remember as you will not get far in the airport. Ground staff would be keeping an attentive eye out for a stressed out traveler who cannot be processed through immigration and hopefully return the item with the only penalty being a time delay.”

But if you don’t realize right away that you lost something, the item will be held for a certain time period, depending on what it is.

“After that it is probably donated to charity if the rightful owner never reclaims the item,” Manders said. “The next challenging part is trying to marry up the owner and the item. An airline can easily move an item around its network but it becomes a little harder if it the owner is outside of that area.”

Other travelers have had a better experience getting their items back. Maggie Turansky, a co-founder and writer for travel website The World Was Here First, recently left her Kindle on an EasyJet flight from London to Edinburgh.

“I didn’t realize it until I was getting ready for bed hours later, but knew that I must have left it in the seatback pocket,” she said. “I immediately contacted the airline and was informed that any left items would likely be taken to the destination airport’s lost and found. Conveniently, the Edinburgh airport has a real-time updated website with found items and I was able to see online that a number of Kindles had been turned in on the day that I was traveling. Because I was only in Edinburgh for the weekend, I stopped by the lost and found before my flight back to London.”

She only had to describe her Kindle and pay a small fee and she got it back.

Airplane passengers
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Erica James, owner of website Erica James Travels, once left her wallet on an American Airlines plane.

“I did not realize it until I reached the rental car area and I had no wallet, identification or credit cards,” she said. “I rushed back to the terminal and the airport officials called back to the gate and no one saw my wallet on the plane. There I was in Dallas, with no ID and no money.”

Luckily, she was still able to fly back to Nashville the next day.

“Once I returned, American Airlines called me, they found my wallet and shipped it back to me, in Nashville,” she said. “Nothing was missing from my wallet. Not sure what happened in between, but it was found on the plane and American Airlines returned it to me.”

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