Wednesday, May 4, 2011

You left your phone on a plane, now what?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Question: I flew from Phoenix to Albuquerque on US Airways and my Droid X cellphone fell down between the window seat armrest and the wall. I could not get it out. I was told it would go to baggage claim before the plane returned to Phoenix, but the phone never showed up.

I researched the US Airways website and found a phone number for the baggage counter at the Albuquerque airport. I left a message and a nice man called me back and said they did not have the phone. He gave me an 800 number to call, and when I did a real person answered and gave me yet another number to call in Phoenix. I was also given a number in North Carolina to call if my loss happened more than 10 days ago. However, the North Carolina number was disconnected and the voice mail system at the Phoenix number was full, so I couldn't leave a message.

The next day I tried calling Phoenix again but the voice mail system was still full, so I went back to the internet and eventually found an e-mail form to complete.

My phone has a purple cover. It's doing laps from Albuquerque to Phoenix and I don't know how to get someone to put their arm down the side of the arm rest to get it. I do hope you can help me.

  • Since smartphones can contain sensitive information, use a password and consider installing security apps.

    By Jeff Chiu, AP

    Since smartphones can contain sensitive information, use a password and consider installing security apps.

By Jeff Chiu, AP

Since smartphones can contain sensitive information, use a password and consider installing security apps.

—Sandra Dickson, Albuquerque

Answer: In the rush to disembark, travelers can be forgetful: Airline passengers leave behind tens of thousands of items every year. The most commonly mislaid articles are iPods, video games, sunglasses, children's toys, and as in Dickson's case, cellphones. Of course, her situation is different since she knew exactly where her phone was, but it was wedged out of reach in between the armrest and the cabin wall. Since the cabin crew told her it would be sent to baggage claim, Dickson left the aircraft and expected to be reunited with her Droid shortly. However, her phone apparently continued onward to rack up frequent-flier miles.

Getting your lost stuff back can be a challenge. Once you leave the secure area of the terminal, you can't backtrack to retrieve what you left behind. The aircraft you flew on probably swiftly left the gate for another city, or perhaps it went in for maintenance.

And then there's the people factor: A missing item might be discovered by the cabin crew, cleaning staff, caterers, maintenance workers, or fellow travelers. Your shiny new MP3 player or cellphone may just prove too tempting for someone's sticky fingers.

Even if your AWOL item is turned in by some honest soul, it could be thousands of miles from where you landed. Before it makes its way to lost and found, that lost phone, DVD player or laptop could languish for a while at a gate, a ticket counter, or baggage claim area.

"Depending on who finds the item, it can be turned into either the local airport lost and found, US Airways lost and found or another carrier's lost and found," says US Airways representative Valerie Wunder. "Being able to determine who found it and where it was turned in is difficult."

Airlines try to reunite passengers with their items gone astray, but they're not liable for them. Lost articles are not like lost baggage: Carriers have no obligation to reimburse you for anything you've left behind. Consequently, the onus is on the passenger to follow up with both the lost and found at their arrival airport and the central lost and found, but as Dickson discovered, calling around can be an exercise in frustration.

"Because of the large numbers of items that are lost, we only have the ability to contact passengers back if their item has been located," says Wunder.

After five days, all lost and found items get shipped from local airports to the US Airways central warehouse in Charlotte. "From the warehouse, all unclaimed items are boxed up and salvaged with the rest of our unclaimed luggage every three months," says Wunder.

In theory, Dickson's Droid would be easy to locate, jammed down by the cabin wall next to seat F1, its purple case gleaming in the shadows. US Airways promptly sent a crew to sleuth it out.

"We were able to locate the plane, did a search of the row, including the rows in front and back of her row, and couldn't find her phone," says Wunder.

The warehouse is also looking for the missing Droid, says Wunder. "It still might turn up," says Wunder.

In the meantime, US Airways offered to reimburse Dickson for her $599 replacement phone.

"Someone had contacted her [after her original e-mail] and told her they found it when they hadn't, so we're reimbursing as a good will gesture since we provided her with incorrect information," says Wunder.

How can you avoid trouble? 

• Carefully check the area around your seat, including the pocket in front of you—that's where most people leave things behind—as well as the overhead bins before disembarking.

• File a claim immediately at the airport. Although airlines aren't liable for articles you lose, they will create a claim in the system, including a description, to help reunite you with your possessions.

• Since smartphones potentially contain sensitive information, put a password on your phone, and consider installing security apps which can track down your phone or wipe its memory remotely.

Read previous columns

Linda Burbank first began troubleshooting travelers' complaints for the Consumer Reports Travel Letter. She now writes regularly for Consumers Union publications and is a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler. E-mail her at Your question may be used in a future column.

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