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Confessions of an Airline Lost and Found Agent

By Kaeli Conforti
May 23, 2017
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Artefficient/Dreamstime
Did you leave your camera, iPad, or teddy bear on the plane? Here’s how to get it back without a fuss. Plus, we’ve got the inside scoop about the silliest things discovered in the lost and found department at Southwest Airlines—and some of them might surprise you!

Imagine you have just returned home after a long flight and realize you've accidentally left your brand new iPad tucked in the airplane's seat back pocket—what happens next? We talked to Robert Lehr, the Manager of Central Baggage Services at Southwest Airlines, to find out how the lost and found department works to help reunite passengers with their favorite forgotten items, whether it's a bag of precious Disney souvenirs or a camera full of photos from a dream trip to Hawaii.

THE SHEER VOLUME CAN BE OVERWHELMING

Just in terms of overall volume, the most items we see are glasses, wallets, and that type of thing. We really classify the items we get as two separate classifications—low value and high value. So, low value items, like glasses, wallets, blankets, stuffed animals, shopping bags—we get a lot of shopping bags in there where people have bags full of stuff like Starbucks cups or that type of thing or maybe bags with items found while they were in Disney. A lot of Disney items. In terms of high value, probably the number one thing we see are cell phones. We get tons of cell phones, lots of iPads, iPods, laptops, not to the volume of the low value items, but even as being high value items, the volumes we get are really astounding. One of the things I think when you first go into our lost and found warehouse is you're kind of blown away just by the volume, the hundreds and hundreds of coats, for instance, this time of the year, just the amount of stuff that is coming through. Then for me personally, I find it a little sad because I know that every one of those people, every one of them, had that pit in their stomach when they realized, oh my gosh, where's my phone, or my wallet, or my camera? And that is something that helps fuel our need and our drive to get the items back to our customer. Quite honestly, we're very proud of it. It's something we knew we wanted to do a better job of, and being Southwest, we want to take care of our customers. We really feel that this is one of those situations where it is the right thing to do to try and get these items back to our customers in any way we can.

READ: "How Not to Be a Jerk on a Plane"

MARDI GRAS BEADS, SOMBREROS, AND OBAMA BOBBLE-HEADS, OH MY!

You just cannot imagine the things that we get. Really, anything that you can carry on a plane that you can get through security, we're going to have in our warehouse. We've had everything in there. I saw a panda suit costume recently. We get a lot of things depending on the time of the year, like if there are certain holidays, for instance. I'll give you an example with Mardi Gras; there just seems to be tons and tons of beads, masks, all kinds of things, Hurricane glasses—a lot of stuff from New Orleans during that time of the year. Also, during the Democratic National Convention, we were inundated with Obama bobble-head dolls! Lots and lots of items there, and in fact from that Democratic National Convention, there was a sign that I believe was used as kind of a backdrop for the speakers, and somehow that turned up at our lost and found warehouse and we had a really hard time getting that returned because it seemed like no one was interested in having it back. We get a lot of items from Disney—a lot of kids leaving their souvenirs from Disneyland. We've got hats like you wouldn't believe—and sombreros! You know, I fly a lot, and I never see anyone getting on with sombreros, but we get a lot of sombreros. Folks will leave them in the overhead bins and get off the plane, and not even think about it. It's very interesting, but really anything you can think of, we're going to end up with.

REUNITED AND IT FEELS SO GOOD

We had a little plastic bunny rabbit piggy bank that was half-full of coins recently and we were able to find the little girl that it belonged to—it just so happens it was a unique item, and so it was something we were able to easily find. Her parents sent us a very nice letter saying she couldn't believe that she got it back and she was reunited with her piggy bank and that was special. But really, the most heartwarming stories are probably when we return things that people are most upset about losing, especially when they lose their cameras and those pictures are the only documentation of an event. We've had issues where people have gotten their cameras returned and it was of their honeymoon. We've returned cameras with photos of the birth of a child and the husband had left the camera on the plane and was in the dog house, so to speak, and we got this really heartwarming letter back saying thank you so much for saving me and preserving the memories for my family. We get a lot of that. Several months back we had a camera that we returned that had pictures of a fallen soldier in Iraq and the family was just beyond themselves because they thought it was gone. We had an older lady who had been given a little soft case of jewelry from her mother that had been passed down—it was in essence an heirloom—and we were able to find that and return it to her. It turned out that it was about $18,000 worth of jewelry that her mother had given to her, and obviously it was more than that to her because it was irreplaceable. We had another lady that we were able to reunite with her violin, and it turns out the violin was worth over $8,000. She was ecstatic to get it back, and so to be able to do those types of things, to return those special, special things is just a blessing for us.

READ: "11 Worst Travel Nightmares (And How to Make Them Go Away)"

THE BEST PART OF THE JOB

That's one of the great things about working here. We have the opportunity to really see folks who thought that there was no chance they were going to see their item again, to change that, and to see them so happy is just really a blessing for us. The feedback we get from our customers—we get lots and lots of letters. A lot of thank you's and sharing some of the things they went through and how they couldn't believe that they got these back. We've had a lot of really good praise from our customers thanking us for the service.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU LEAVE SOMETHING ON THE PLANE

Within the first 24 hours, they should contact the baggage service office in their arriving city. If the item hasn't been located or it's been more than 24 hours, they should go on Southwest.com or AirTran.com and fill out a Lost Item Report. That report is really critical. It gets really good information, detailed information including serial numbers, and it really enables us to match them up with their lost items to return them. It really depends a lot on when they contact us, but typically, if they contact us in short order and get back to us when they're contacted that we have found their item, usually we can get it back to them in just a couple of days. It works really well. We give them multiple ways that we can return the item to them, but typically we use FedEx, and we can get it back to them next-day if it's really pressing.

HOW TO GET YOUR STUFF BACK—AND WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU DON'T

When a customer fills out that report, we immediately send them back an email confirmation, and we give them continued emails just to let them know the status of the search for their item, but once we actually find the item, we contact the customer and ask them how they'd like to have it returned. So usually, primarily we use FedEx, but we will use other shipping methods if the customer prefers it. All items are processed by a third party and with the proceeds going to charity, Southwest earns no revenue from lost and found items at all. Additionally, it's a no charge service that we're doing for our customers. Really no other airline in our industry goes to the lengths we do to reunite our customers with their items. It has really been just a huge, huge win for us. We actually started some of these new processes almost exactly a year ago with the ability for customers to go online and our return rate and the ability to really reunite our customers with their items has been just tremendous. In just the last year, we've seen probably a 400 to 500 percent better rate of returns than we were able to do before—even high value items were somewhere around a 300 percent increase in what we've been able to return to our customers.

ALWAYS REMEMBER TO CHECK YOUR SEAT BACK POCKET

There are so many folks that leave things behind and they're just not thinking about it. We had a lady recently that had lost an item—I believe it was an iPad. We were able to find it for her and return it to her, and she was really happy about that of course. She flew a couple of days later and was sitting in her seat and the flight attendants actually got on the overhead and asked everyone to check their seat back pockets to make sure that nothing had been left behind, and her response was, are they talking to me because I was the one who lost something the last time? But anyway, she ended up checking her seat back pocket and had left her Notebook in there, and she was like, oh my gosh, how could I have done this again? So, you wonder how people do it the first time, but it's easy to do it multiple times. Folks just aren't thinking about that. It's crazy.

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Travel Tips

Let a local show you how locals live

The idea took root when Sarah Winters and Shawn Ward, a longtime marketer and entrepreneur respectively, were vacationing with friends in the Hamptons. They wanted to go to a club but it was sort of exclusive and there was a line. One of the friends they were with was much more connected in town; he had a few words with the doorman, who quickly whisked the group inside. That’s when it occurred to them: how cool would it be if anyone could hangout with a local while traveling? It affords you dependable advice about local haunts and hidden gems overlooked by guidebooks and, if you work it right, access to places that might otherwise be exclusive and inaccessible. And with that, Gibby Road was formed. “It’s not that you’re told where to go. You don't get a curated list of places to check out. It’s just a chance to go around with someone—whether you know the person or not—and it’s like having a friend of a friend who’s an expert," explains Winters. "There’s this idea of ‘come with me’ infused throughout the whole Gibby Road concept.” The site went live in in August with more than 100 local “gibbies” in three states. The guides sign up, explain the experience they offer, and provide a bio and their contact information on the website so that you can get in touch with them directly while deciding on whether to hire them. Fees are variable and range between $5 and $250. But the coolest thing about the site—and others like it—is that each individual offers highly specified tours, usually around a particular theme. You can go on a food tour in Brooklyn or San Francisco for instance, but there’s plenty that are more eccentric featuring places and things you likely didn’t know were a thing. In Detroit, for instance, you can go on a music tour with a longtime Detriot dweller and music industry vet. In Joshua Tree, CA, there’s a “surreal” art crawl with a local film producer featuring little known installations in the desert and a visit to Junk Dadaist, an outdoor museum. In Palos Verdes, CA, an adventure-loving ski instructor takes you to test drive a Tesla along the coast. Detroit’s every growing hipster haunts are the focus of a tour of the Motor City's increasingly vibrant Downtown.  “Going local trend that everybody is obsessed with. You even hear it from hotels that say ‘don’t be a tourist, live like a local,’ but that’s just four walls and a bed,” says co-founder Rachel Harrison. “What really allows you to be a local is actually interacting with and spending time with locals.” Gibby Road is very much a product of our time. After all, that “come with me” ethos that Ward describes is increasingly infused throughout most of the way we travel, from AirB&B to Uber and other rideshare services. In fact, thematic local-led tours are a growing trend.  Viator is the elder statesman of destination tourism, having launched in Sydney in 1995. It’s a bit more slick and glossy than the newer indie start-ups, having been acquired by TripAdvisor in 2014. It’s a network of more than 3,000 tour operators around the planet and its site is available in ten languages.  Vestigo, which launched in 2015, focuses on outdoor activities, from yoga to hiking to mountain biking. It’s largely offered in Georgia, where it was founded, and surrounding states.  Your Local Cousin is much broader in scope. Like Gibby Road, locals sign up to offer tourists tips and insight when they travel. There are over 1200 “cousins” in 250 cities in 110 countries. Unlike Gibby Road, it is not a marketplace for purchasing hours’ or days’ worth of time with a guide. (Many of its cousins are independent tour operators, though, so the connection could end up with the option of a private tour.) YLC's network of cousins is pretty broad and eccentric. There’s a fishing expert in Victoria Falls, Zambia, for instance, and an Olympic silver medalist in field hockey offering tips in Amsterdam, to name a few. YLC’s services are communication-based, allowing you to pick someone’s brain and answer your specific questions. You can connect with a Cousin over text (20 questions for $15) or communicate through the YLC platform (3 questions for $10). Have a phone conversation with a local to help you plan your trip (30 minutes for $15), or get a custom designed itinerary for one to 11 days ($25 to $60) to use as a guide as you explore a city on your own. “The best source of information is always a network of friends and family,” says co-founder Aarti Kanodia. “We have a family of 1200 locals who really help you explore the way you should. They're a way to get a deep dive in the city.” 

Travel Tips

Everything You Need to Know About Traveling With Your Pet

Picture your perfect pet-friendly travel scenario: Maybe you're barefoot on the beach, tossing a stick to your canine best friend, who couldn't be happier as she chases it up and down, making paw prints in the gently lapping surf. Sounds pretty idyllic, right? Before you set off on your dream journey, though, the 12 items below are crucial to think about prior to taking a trip with your pet. First things first: Nobody knows her like you do. If you think she'll enjoy the open road or friendly skies, she'll likely be a great travel companion, especially if “you’re an adventure traveler and have a dog who is high energy and loves to run around,” says KC Theisen, director of pet-care issues for the Humane Society of the United States. “But if your dog is getting older or is anxious, he might be happier lounging on the couch at home or taking a weekend at the doggy spa. And it’s unlikely your cat is going to enjoy a vacation.” (Don't worry; we have tips for kitty travel too if your cat is a jet-setter.) While you’re still in the planning stages, call your hotel, airline, rental-car company, and any local establishments that you’re hoping will allow your pooch to join you. “‘Dog friendly’ has so many meanings today, from 'tolerated' to 'welcome with treats or toys or facilities specific to dogs,'” says Melissa Halliburton, founder and CEO of BringFido.com. Personally, we’re hoping for doggy yoga (a.k.a. "doga") at the next hotel we stay at! Yep, it's a thing. 1. Tote along the right supplies. Here’s a basic pet packing list: a leash and harness, bed, crate, shot records, litter box, familiar toys, food and water bowls, bottled water, food, treats, any prescriptions, and poop bags. "Water is something you can’t have too much of,” Theisen says. “Often nervous pets will spill their water or decide not to drink all day, and then they need a gallon when they get to the hotel. Also, write your cellphone number on your pet’s collar in big numbers.” If your pet likes to snuggle with you at night, Halliburton suggests bringing a towel or bedsheet to protect hotel linens. And comfort from home goes a long way. “If they have a sleeping bed or blanket, definitely bring it,” Halliburton says. “Any reminders from home will lower their stress level.” 2. Don’t forget the paperwork. Before you hit the road, make sure all of your pet’s tags, including his identification and rabies, are up to date. Be prepared for emergencies by bringing copies of medical records and vaccinations. Air travel requires a health certificate and possibly other documents depending on the airline and destination; if you’re traveling internationally, check with that country for requirements specific to their region. (That’s critical. None of us wants to face the legal predicament Johnny Depp’s wife Amber Heard is in after she flew her Yorkshire terriers, Pistol and Boo, to Australia without going through customs or heeding the country’s quarantine rules.) It’s also a good idea to have your pet microchipped—and make sure the record is current—in case you get separated. 3. Stock a first aid kit. Whether your and your pet are going hiking or just driving to visit grandma, it’s important to have a first aid kit on hand. “Buy a pre-packaged kit with essentials such as gauze, gloves, medical tape, bandages, cleaning wipes, and disinfectant,” Halliburton says. “I suggest also bringing Benadryl for possible allergic reactions, hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting in the event that your pet has gotten ahold of something he shouldn’t have, and in case your pet has damaged a nail, cornstarch will stop the bleeding.” Download the Pet First Aid app from the Red Cross for tips on how to handle various injuries (free, redcross.org).  4. Print out a picture. Practically every pet owner’s phone is filled with pictures of their furball—and that can come in handy. “But you can’t print that out and give it to someone,” Theisen says. “You can’t make a poster or flier when you’re in a panic and on the road. Carrying a printed photo is an additional level of security.” It’s also helpful when you’re trying to find your pet at the airport at cargo pickup. 5. Book the right hotel. Not only should you make sure that your lodging is pet-friendly, but you should ask a few key questions too. “Check if there is a weight requirement; many pet-friendly hotels have a weight restriction,” advises Eric Halliday, general manager of the Lodge at Tiburon in Tiburon, California (from $179 per night, lodgeattiburon.com). “Communicate with the hotel about when you would like your room cleaned. We advise the guest at check-in that we will only clean the room if the pet is with the guest or in his cage.” Halliday also suggests inquiring about dog-walking areas in advance so that you know what to expect. “Ask about the local community—is it pet friendly? Will you be able to take your dog most places?” And just so you’re not saddled with any surprise charges, inquire if there are additional fees, which are common. For example, the Lodge at Tiburon has a one-time non-refundable pet fee of $75, though that includes a pet package with a special bandanna, dog bowl, treats, and access to the dedicated dog-run area on property.  6. Prepare for takeoff. While we get snacks and movies on demand, flying isn’t nearly as fun for animals. In fact, Theisen says that unless airline travel is necessary, you’re better off leaving them at home or finding another mode of transportation. Typically, only dogs and cats under 10 pounds are allowed in the cabin, and larger ones must go in the cargo hold. Be sure to check with the airline before you book, as rules vary widely—as do fees and number of pets allowed. Most airlines don’t allow you to put anything in the transport crate besides food, water, and a blanket due to ingestion risk, but a blanket that smells like home can help relax them. “Figure out which water bowl you’re going to use, freeze treats and kibble in that dish, and then when it’s loaded into the plane, the water doesn’t spill, and it’s encouraging for them to work on the ice block to get to treats and keep them occupied,” suggests Theisen, who says it's her go-to trick. 7. Do a trial trip. To keep your pet calm and comfortable during the big journey, do a few practice runs beforehand. “Start by simply having her get in the carrier and rewarding her,” Halliburton says. “Do this often, and increase the amount of time she is in the carrier each time. Then have her practice being in the carrier while you drive around the block or go to the dog park. It’s important to place toys in the carrier and reward her often for behaving well during this practice. Generally, dogs will come to think of their carrier or crate as a safe place.” If they’re going to be on a plane, you can adjust this technique. “Load your dog in a carrier and put it on a rocking chair, or put it in a car squished up on floorboard,” Theisen says. 8. MacGyver a special seat for the car. It’s adorable when you spot a dog sticking his head out the car window and taking in the breeze—but it’s dangerous too. “Unfortunately, a pet loose in the car at a very minimum is a distraction to driver and may interfere with your ability to drive safely,” Theisen says. “A cat goes right under the gas pedal, while dogs run into your field of vision. Pets are best secured in a carrier or crate. Not only are they prevented from distracting you, but they have a level of protection in case of an accident or crash.” There are plenty of options, from harnesses to booster seats to seat belts for pets. But Theisen cautions that there have been very few studies on the safety of these products. Often, the easiest solution is just stowing them in their carrier and securing it with a regular seat belt. 9. Keep Fluffy entertained. Bringing your pet’s favorite toy along is a given, but a trip is a special occasion, so why not wow him with something new? “An interactive toy will keep him occupied during long trips,” Halliburton says. “The PetSafe Busy Buddy Barnacle [from $4.50, amazon.com] is durable and has multiple holes for dispensing different-sized treats during play. Outward Hound has several great options as well.” To ensure safety, take your pet’s mode of transport into account. If your dog will be unattended, like in a carrier in the backseat of your car alone while you’re behind the wheel, stay away from anything he might choke on, like bones or hooves. 10. Take plenty of breaks on the road. As a rule of thumb, humans usually need a break every two and a half hours on a road trip, and the same applies to your pet. It’s also a good time to make sure he’s still safe and content in his carrier and hasn’t had any accidents. Try to visit a dog park to let Lassie stretch her legs. “You can use the BringFido app (free, itunes.com) to locate dog parks near you when you travel through new cities,” Halliburton says. The app also helps point travelers toward pet-friendly hotels, eateries, and attractions like pets-welcome hiking trails. Many towns hold "yappy hours" at parks or restaurants where dog owners can socialize with each other and their pets. 11. Prevent motion sickness. “If your dog or cat gets motion sickness easily, they might want to stay home,” Theisen says. Avoid feeding your pet within three to four hours of travel, and give her controlled amounts of water. Ask your vet if there are any medications or supplements. “Motion sickness is more common in puppies than older dogs, and most puppies will outgrow it, similarly to human children,” Halliburton says. “Like people, facing forward, lowering the windows a bit, or distracting them with a toy all help to alleviate nausea.” 12. Don’t sedate your pet. It might seem like a good idea to give Max something to make him drowsy, but it can be harmful. “We do not support tranquilizing or sedating your pet, especially for air travel, because cargo holds have different air pressurization and temperature than the cabin,” Theisen says. “Your pet needs all his faculties to handle that stress. When pets are over-sedated, there is no one to see your pet if something goes wrong.” Never give your pet painkillers from his last surgery. Instead, ask your veterinarian for a prescription if your animal is very anxious or has other needs. 

Travel Tips

All-Inclusive Vacations: The 7 Essential Questions Every Traveler Must Ask

The phrase "all–inclusive" is so enticing. You immediately picture yourself at a cushy resort, lounging by a pool or dreamy beach, frosty cocktail in hand, never once reaching for your wallet. But while that dream scenario is within reach, you've got to take a few steps to make sure it all goes down the way you want it to.  Be sure to read the "fine print" before you book, especially when you're considering package deals. All–inclusives can be a bargain and a great stress–reliever (no foreign currency to worry about, no tips to calculate), but before you book make sure you know what you're getting yourself into. In addition to finding out what the rate is for your all-inclusive vacation package, here are the seven essential questions every traveler must ask: 1) How many meals are included? 2) What times are meals served? 3) What are your meal choices? (If there are sit–down restaurants, you might want to ask if reservations are accepted and how far in advance folks need to reserve to ensure a seat.) 4) Are tips included? 5) Is alcohol included? 6) Which activities, if any, are included in the cost? Which activities are available for an additional fee? 7) What kind of entertainment is there in the evening?

Travel Tips

Have You Booked Your Summer Vacation Rental Yet?

Panama City is at it again—topping everyone’s summer vacation list. According to a recent study by TripAdvisor Rentals, the town, which boasts 27 miles of shoreline, takes top billing for most popular spot for a summer escape. Florida cities occupy four positions on the top-ten list based on data gathered on TripAdvisor bookings through March 28, 2017. It reflects rentals on properties for June, July, or August. Median July pricing is for two-bedroom rentals in a given destination. Beach destinations, to be sure, make up eight of the ten vacation spots. Ocean City, Maryland clocked in at number two with Destin, Florida; Myrtle Beach, North Carolina; Kissimmee, Florida; and Orlando coming up close behind. Rounding out the list are Alabama’s Gulf Shores; Virginia Beach; Davenport, Florida; and the increasingly popular North Myrtle Beach. Hotels, of course, are plentiful in each of those towns, but if you’re planning to take some serious downtime this summer, you’d be better served renting a house. After all, you can save money by eating in and if you’re traveling with a group, it’s an economical way to plan a long stay. More than half travelers in the Trip Advisor survey book their stay three to five months in advance, which means now’s the time to lock something in while there’s a decent amount of inventory available. And if you’re wondering just how worthwhile a vacation rental is, we’ll tell you that you can get a two-bedroom rental during July in perennially popular Panama City for around $1,843. Myrtle Beach has accommodations for about $1250 and quaint Davenport, Florida, has rentals for under $700. Condos that hover around $1000 for the week actually make Orlando an affordable choice for a family. 

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