Help! I Left Something on the Plane or at TSA. How Do I Get It Back?

If you forgot your laptop or keys in the TSA tray or left a beloved coat in the overhead bin, these tips will improve your chances of recovering those lost items.

A man putting a plastic bag of toiletries into a TSA security tray containing a wallet, a phone, and a belt

According to the TSA, passengers leave behind 90,000 to 100,000 items at security checkpoints every month.

Photo by Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock

With your carry-on luggage stored properly in the overhead bin, you settle into your seat and prepare to zone out for the next couple of hours by catching up on the last season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. But wait a second. Your earbuds … they’re not in your backpack where you are positive you placed them before leaving for the airport. Did you leave them in a tray when you went through the security line? Will you ever see them again?

Whether you absentmindedly leave your iPad in the seat back pocket or your wristwatch in the tray at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint, losing items in transit is a terrible feeling.

Yet there’s no reason to admit defeat. The airlines and TSA are eager to help reunite you with your lost belongings. In fact, TSA estimates it recovers close to 100,000 lost items each year.

What to do if you leave something at the airport

Few people would say they relish going through the security checkpoint at the airport. After removing your shoes and belt, taking your laptop out of its protective sleeve and securing a separate bin for your electronics (for those who don’t have TSA PreCheck), and making sure you’ve finished the last drop of water in your reusable water bottle, it’s always a bit of a relief to make it through the TSA screening process.

But before you can relax in the lounge or belly up to the bar for a Bloody Mary, you have to pack up all your things, checking to see you have your passport and any stray items that might have fallen out as the bin moved through the conveyor belt.

If you arrive at your gate and realize you left something at the security checkpoint, and you have time before boarding ends (a point for the argument on getting to the airport early), you should return to the checkpoint and request to speak with a supervisor, says Lisa Farbstein, a spokesperson for the TSA. “If the item has been found, it can easily be returned.”

If, however, you don’t realize you’re missing something until after the wheels are up, Farbstein says the best thing to do is reach out to TSA by going to the website’s Lost and Found page. Here, you’ll be prompted to enter the name of the airport or airport code. Depending on the airport, there may be a telephone number to call or an online form to fill out.

For items left behind at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, one of the country’s busiest airports, you’ll need to fill out a form, including the date and approximate time the item was lost and a description of it. The more detailed, the better, says Farbstein. If it’s a cell phone, tablet, or laptop, you’ll want to provide the make and model and any distinctive traits such as the color, a description of the case, and even the lock-screen photo.

Black and red wheelie suitcases and other smaller carry-on and personal items in an airplane overhead bin

If you forget something on the airplane, you won’t be able to get back on to retrieve it—but the flight crew can often help you out.

Photo by Shutterstock

The TSA team will use the provided information and details to check if the item was left at the checkpoint. “If so, we’re pleased to make sure that the traveler can be reunited with their item,” says Farbstein. “This is one of those customer services that we offer that most travelers probably are not aware of.”

Items left behind at TSA security checkpoints are held by TSA for a minimum of 30 days or until the item is returned to its rightful owner. There’s no maximum amount of time TSA keeps items, but Farbstein says that teams will often hold on to higher-value items longer in the hopes that travelers might realize where they left them.

Items not claimed by their owners are either destroyed or, if deemed to have value, sold. And you might be surprised to hear where the money goes: According to the TSA’s FAQ page, “Money from the sale of all lost and found items goes to the U.S. Department of the Treasury and into a general fund used to pay towards the U.S. national debt.”

What to do if you leave something on the plane

If you discover you left your child’s favorite stuffed bunny on the plane immediately after you’ve deplaned, you won’t be able to return to the aircraft to retrieve it, but you can try to get a member of the flight crew to help. A Delta spokesperson tells Afar that flight attendants and gate agents are happy to assist in cases where passengers realize quickly—that is, before leaving the gate area—that they left something behind.

When you don’t know until it’s too late, then your best option is to consult the airline’s website where, more often than not, you’ll be led to fill out a report for a lost item. This is the case with major U.S. carriers Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United, and JetBlue. Southwest passengers are instructed to notify a customer service agent if they realize the item was left before they’ve exited the airport. Once back home, filling out an online report is protocol.

By providing your email address, you can expect to receive communication if and when your item is found. United’s form includes a notice on the passenger’s responsibility of shipping costs, though in some cases a no-cost pickup at the airport can be arranged.

You can also report items you might have lost at the gate area on the online form. Thirty days is the standard amount of time the airline will search for your item before determining that it can’t be found.

Although it might require some patience and perseverance, tracking down your missing item is possible.

When in doubt, follow the guidance offered by Farbstein:

  • If you left the item on a plane: Contact the airline.
  • If you left the item in the airport terminal (restroom, gate area, restaurant): Contact the airport.
  • If you left the item in a rental car: Contact the rental car company.
  • If you left an item at a security checkpoint: Contact TSA.
Prior to becoming a full-time freelancer, Stacey Lastoe won an Emmy for her work on Anthony Bourdain’s Little Los Angeles while working as a senior editor at CNN. In addition to freelance editing gigs at Red Ventures and Fodor’s Travel, Stacey writes for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New York Post, Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine, and Robb Report. She splits her time between Brooklyn and Vermont.
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