Hundreds of thousands of items are left on planes each year. Venetia Sherson finds out what happens to them

At Dubai Airport, closeted in a cell-like room, between Costa Coffee and duty-free Chanel, a woman named Leila* bends over a logbook meticulously recording in ballpoint pen the contents of a plastic bag. There is a Harrods wallet, two earrings — unmatched — and a gold chain. She takes the cash and cards from the wallet, notes the denominations and identifications, checks the chain for engraving, and with forensic patience, fingers each earring for any detail that might set it apart from the many others she has seen that week.

Opposite, four of us sit in chairs, not designed for slouching. A poster of Sheik Zayed, the founding father of United Arab Emirates, known for his keen eye for progress and reform, is tacked to the wall. I wonder what he would make of the ballpoint pen and logbook.

Leila finishes her inventory and beckons the first in line to approach her desk. A tall Englishman, wearing expensive headphones around his neck explains his son, aged 10, has left an identical set on a plane.

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"They were a birthday present," he adds, to warm her heart. Leila offers neither chit-chat nor commiseration. She checks his boarding pass. "Nothing has been handed in yet, sir. If you would like to email this address from your destination, if the item is found, it will be sent to your nearest airport."

The next man is called forward. He lost a brown purse a month ago on a flight from Rome to Dubai. Leila asks him for the date. She moves along rows of plastic packing cases, tagged with handwritten labels: "May, Laptops"; "June; Glasses". She stops at "July, Purses" forages, and emerges, triumphant, with a man bag. He shakes his head.

When it is my turn, I approach the desk with little hope. Travel websites are filled with tales of people who have lost items never to see them again. DBX is the world's busiest passenger airport; more than 418,000 planes pass through each year. In one of them – in the pocket of seat 48D – is my new blue Kindle. Who would care?

"Can I see your boarding pass?" asks Leila.

Regular travellers will be familiar with the heart-stopping moment when you realise you have left behind something of value in a plane. In the jet-lagged rush to vacate your seat, it's easy to miss the iPad slipped between the sick bag and the safety cards, or the expensive rain jacket you stowed beneath the seat in front. Thousands of items are left behind each week. The majority are reunited with the owners. Others not, either because they have been written off by owners who have given up the search, or simply disappeared. Cleaners and staff are often blamed for missing items, but airlines are quick to defend them.

E-readers and tablets can be easily forgotten in the seatback pocket. Photo / Getty Images
E-readers and tablets can be easily forgotten in the seatback pocket. Photo / Getty Images

A little-known fact is that — unlike checked baggage — the airline is not legally liable for the safe passage of your hand luggage, you are. So, when you leave behind your laptop, iPhone, camera or baby Harry's favourite toy in your rush to leave the plane, the airline is under no obligation to return it to you.

Systems for retrieval vary. Most airlines ask you to report lost items by phone or online. If they find a match, you will be asked to provide proof of identity and often your boarding pass. Air New Zealand says if there is sufficient contact information, it will initiate contact with passengers. If an item isn't found, it will also provide a letter of support for an insurance claim.

Some airlines now let you search for your own item on their database. At London Heathrow and some other British airports, everything handed in goes into a data base (missingx.com). If you spot your property and can prove its yours, you will be charged a service fee of up to £20 ($37.50); cuddly toys excepted. Other airlines charge more. Aer Lingus has a retrieval price tag of €60 ($100) for a laptop and €20 ($50) for a wallet, purse or bag left on a plane or in the Aer Lingus Lounge at Dublin Airport.

Add to this the cost of packaging and postage and retrieval often outweighs the cost of the lost item. Hamilton woman Julie Shaw left her Kindle in a security bin at Heathrow Airport.

"We had a lot of bits and pieces in the bins, including belts, shoes, jackets and my iPad. The Kindle was black, the bins were black, and it was overlooked."

She identified her Kindle online by a serial number, but the cost of release (around $40-50), plus packaging and postage to New Zealand was far greater than the price of a new Kindle, so she replaced it.

Which raises the question of what happens to unclaimed items? After being stored for 90 days, depending on their value, most are recycled, donated to charities, destroyed or auctioned. In the US, huge warehouses designed like department stores, sell thousands of items that have not been reunited with their owners. The auction houses buy the items through a contract with US airlines. In the UK, airline items not reclaimed are donated to or auctioned for charity. Air New Zealand also gives non-valuable items to charity and valuable items are auctioned through Customs Auctions.

The Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama sells items from lost luggage. Photo / Getty Images
The Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama sells items from lost luggage. Photo / Getty Images

The range of lost items is vast. Though some are habitually left behind (see sidebar), others are unusual. Air New Zealand lists false teeth, a desk lamp and a hammock among its unexpected finds. Staff at London City Airport, the preferred airport for wealthy business travellers, has reported finding a bag of diamonds, a Rolex watch worth $19,000, the keys to a Porsche, and a book of blank, signed cheques. Less valuable, but no less remarkable, were an adult toy, a glass eye, wigs, and an artificial skull.

Meanwhile, back in Dubai Airport, Leila has given me a slip of paper with an email address to contact and a phone number. "It might be worth calling the number just before you board," she says. Without hope, I pass the phone number to the manager at the boarding check-in gate. Minutes before the boarding call, my name is called over the speaker system.

"You have lost a Kindle?" asks the manager. "What colour is it please?" "Blue," I say. There is a courier standing by the desk. He opens the bag and my Kindle appears. "Sign here," he says. I say, "Thank you. It was a gift."

*Name has been changed.

Items often left behind

1. iPads

In Economy Class, it's convenient to slip the device into the pocket on the back of the seat in front of you, where it is hidden from sight.

2. Mobiles

Smartphones are becoming more important as reliable in-flight connectivity becomes more available. They can slip down the side of the seat or be lost in the seat pocket.

3. Neck pillows

While bulky, they often end up on the floor, rolling around beneath a seat where they can be forgotten.

4. Clothing

Outer clothing like cardigans and scarves discarded during a flight, are often left behind.

5. Glasses

Losing your specs can be a nightmare. Unlike other items that stay in your bag, it's hard to go through a whole flight without needing your glasses.

6. Kindles

A fat paperback may be conspicuous, but a thin e-reader less so. The good news, if you replace it, you can retrieve your library of downloaded books.

7. Cameras

Many people still own cameras, even in the age of smartphones and selfies.

8. Water bottles

They roll out of reach.

9. Passports

Hopefully discovered before you're standing in the queue at immigration.

10. Children's toys

Lost cuddly bears, Transformers, pacifiers, and crucial bits of Lego will cause tantrums down the line.

Source: businesstraveller.com