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Airlines: The Flight of Lost Articles

January 04, 1987|SHARON DIRLAM | Times Staff Writer

After a flight from Paris to New York, and a layover at JFK, and halfway through the five-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles, a traveler's new dentures were giving him a big pain. He groggily took out the partial plate and slipped it into the seat pocket in front of him. Then he could nap more comfortably.

His wife picked him up at the airport and drove him home to Westwood. In the car, Pierre Venant remembered that he had left his dentures in the seat pocket.

It was late when Venant called American Airlines and reported the loss. He was told that they would phone him in the morning if the teeth were found.

Nobody phoned, so he called the next day. This time he was told that the plane he was on had gone on to Dallas and had not been cleaned during its stop in Los Angeles, and that furthermore from Dallas it went on to Honolulu. In any case, his teeth didn't show up in any of those destinations.

Next, Venant decided to confront someone at American Airlines in person at LAX. This time he was told that there was no way to trace the missing dentures.

File a Claim

After three weeks and several more phone calls, Venant decided to file a claim against American Airlines for $5,000 to pay for a new partial plate. The claim was denied.

Airlines report that they generally don't take the blame for items lost by the traveler. Their main concern is the luggage that is tagged and transported by the airline.

The loss of carry-on items are treated as "an inconvenience for the person that we do try to deal with," said Larry Gottardi, spokesman for American Airlines. "If they leave behind something worth less than $10, even, we'll keep it around for 15 days. Something expensive, cameras or jewelry, for instance, we'll keep for 60 days. Cash, we'll keep for six months."

"Basically, if an item is not tendered to us, we don't take responsibility for it," explained Jerry Trop, manager of consumer affairs for United Airlines.

The story of the missing dentures didn't surprise Trop. "We get two or three a month," he said. "And recently someone left behind an artificial leg. If people call us and identify their item, we'll return it. "

Things Left Behind

Other things that passengers have left behind on airplanes include wheelchairs, movie scripts, briefcases, cameras, jewelry, coats, car keys, eyeglasses, film, even money.

"We may have 40 or 50 London Fog topcoats," Trop said, "but usually there's no way to match them with a caller. The same with prescription eyeglasses. How do you know whose they are?"

Generally, each airline has its own method of dealing with lost and found, and airports have their own system as well. There's not necessarily much coordination between the two, and there's really no standard procedure. At LAX alone there are 80 airlines, each with their own procedures.

Super Shuttle, the blue vans that take travelers from their homes to the airport, has its own lost and found at the south edge of LAX. Their back room holds an assortment of lost items ranging from coats to expensive cameras that were turned in by their drivers. If they have the item, a caller can identify it, give the date and address of their ride, and claim their item at the office.

Not a High Priority

"If something is lost in an airport's main terminal, we encourage the finder to turn it in to the local airport authority," Trop said. "But if it's left at the gate, then we'll take custody of it."

Lost and found, according to Trop, is dealt with as "a service to the customer, but at the bottom line it's really not a high priority."

Yet, as James A. Arey, spokesman for Pan American World Airways, noted, "The transportation industry has a pretty good record on getting lost items back to people. Your chances of getting something back are certainly better than things that you lose in a department store or a sports stadium or even city hall."

The best advice is to hang on to your belongings. And the next best advice is to label the things you might lose so that you can identify them if someone turns them in.

At LAX a small building next to a runway houses the lost and found, staffed by Airport Police officers Richard Adams and Melvin Tarver. Shelves around the walls are stuffed with suitcases, backpacks, purses, boxes and crates, tennis rackets, luggage carriers, cosmetic cases, canes, toys, liquor and umbrellas, all awaiting their owner's call, at (213) 646-2260.

Most of the collection is lost and found, some stolen and discarded; some are items left behind by people when they're arrested, and they'll be there when they get out jail, provided it's not longer than 120 days. After that the stuff goes to the Van Nuys office of the Los Angeles Police Dept.

'140 Items a Month'

"We get about 140 items a month through here," Adams estimated.

His partner, Tarver, guessed that about half of it eventually gets returned to the original owner.

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