How to Search for Items Left on the Airplane

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When you fly with little kids, you are likely hitting the skies with lots of stuff. The more stuff and little hands you have onboard, the more likely something gets left behind. We have a pretty good system in place for packing up the big ticket items towards the end of the flight and thankfully don’t have a track record of losing very many major things on planes (knock on wood). But, every system has cracks, on our most recent United flight home from Grand Cayman, my Coach sunglasses decided they weren’t done vacationing as we exited the plane.


They were very much on my face as we boarded the plane as shown in Exhibit A below, but had somehow disappeared by the time we were off the plane.

My best guess is that in the process of unhooking the car seat and getting our stuff and children together to exit, they either fell off from being hooked on the top of my dress, or I sat them down for a moment never to pick them up again. Now, they are several years old, probably a bit dated, have scratches on the lenses, and are certainly well beyond any built-in credit card purchase protections, but I’d still prefer to have them rather than not have them. Once we realized they were indeed not stashed in any corner of any bag, I brushed up on what to do when you leave an item on an airplane.

Photo of C + my now MIA sunglasses taken by Rebecca of Flytographer in Grand Cayman

What to do when you leave an item on the airplane

My mom has been through this before and ultimately was successfully reunited with the iPad she left on a Frontier Airlines flight into Houston. As I shared then, if you are still at the airport, the best thing to do is go back to the gate, or at least the check-in counter, and plead for help from the airline staff with all the information about your missing item that you have available. The longer you wait to start the search, the further away your item will likely become. Getting a real human involved in the search ASAP is preferable if at all possible.

If the item is an electronic with a built-in tracking feature, I would use that feature to track the item as soon as possible as it can be intentionally disabled very quickly in the wrong hands. In my case, my sunglasses clearly don’t have a tracking feature, and since we were already long gone from the airport when I accepted that the sunglasses were really missing I didn’t get to plead at the gate for them to re-check row 24 seats D, E, and F.

Since I had already left the airport, all I could really do was fill out United’s online lost item search form that almost all of the major US airlines now have available on their websites. The one major US airline without an online lost item search form is Spirit, and they ask you to contact the baggage office at the airport where you landed for assistance with an item left onboard.

Fill out online airline missing item forms

For United and the other US airlines with online lost item forms, you need to provide a detailed description, including brand, color, size and distinguishing features for your lost item. If you’ve lost an electronic item, it is best if you can provide the item’s serial number. The online tracking system used by United and several other airlines will automatically notify you that the search for your missing item has begun, and provide you follow-up messages at 2, 5, 15 and 30 days after a lost item is reported.

Unfortunately for me, the updates have so far have been that the item has not been found.


I’m not very hopeful that my sunglasses will ever make their way back home, but I know of multiple success stories where owners and items are ultimately reunited thanks to the airlines’ lost and found systems and procedures. At least you have a chance to bring your sunglasses back from vacation if you fill out the airline lost item tracking forms.

Have you ever left something on an airplane and then used the lost item tracking forms to locate your missing item?

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  1. I would imagine people would be more prone to return electronics since most items can be tracked but I feel you will never see your sunglasses again. 🙁 Hope I am wrong.

    • I’m pretty sure you are right, but always worth a shot as you never know. I’ve had a wallet with cash in it returned to be before back in college, so you never know.

      • My husband left his polo sunglasses at a restaurant in Nashville (I bought them for him). He called the next day and ironically, the assistant manager was wearing them [he thought they were very nice but they did have a scratch so he thought no one would call back about them]. He was holding them at the restaurant for a week in case we came back, but we had to drive home the next morning. We made arrangements to pay for shipping, but they actually overnighted them to my husband without charge!

        If we ever go back to Nashville, this tapas restaurant will on the top of our list to visit.

  2. I am ashamed to say I had three instances of lost items. The first was never recovered in 2011 (flight attendants on the next flight told me that I had ZERO chance of getting my headsets back; one even said airline employees would LOVE to have them – really!).

    The next instances (both happened in 2017) were successfully recovered.

    My headset fell out of my bag into the overhead bin on my flight home; a cleaning crew person found it and the iPod unit inside the case. I paid the person to bring them to us in a neutral location. And yes, the guy should have taken them to lost and found but I did place a note in the headset saying I would pay a reward if found (in case 2011 happened again) so while he acted unethically, I have the headset and iPod back. Lesson learned – store valuables in a bag that zips and locks.

    In the second case, I left my iPad on a flight. I reported it on the airline’s lost and found site as soon as I checked into my hotel (as the airline stated I needed to do when I inquired). However, the airport lost and found reported every day during my vacation week that they had found nothing. Calling the airport did not yield results either, though I think it is worth the call.

    On a whim, I decided to ask the gate agents about it when I checked in on my return trip. They reported they when they find items, they lock them in their own “lost and found” area in the airport [not with the airport lost and found] and guess what – they had my iPad! They could not call me because my unit was password protected and I did not have a sticker on it with contact information; I unlocked it to show that I owned it. I was the happiest person on the planet that day even with the 1.5 hour flight delay.

    Lessons learned: Always check the seat in front or better yet, try not to store anything there; Place an email address on the unit just in case; Insist on getting a local number for the airline AT the airport and/or check with a gate agent.

    I hope you are able to find your sunglasses.

  3. I lost a brand new iPhone. My best guess is that I (or more likely my toddler) dropped it right before landing and it slid forward a few seats during the landing. Anyway, I didn’t notice until we had gotten to our car in the parking lot so we circled around and my husband went in and talked with the check in agents. They looked on the plane which was still there but did not find it. Unfortunately it was still in airplane mode so I couldn’t even track it. I filled out the form and put the phone in lost mode. A month later I got a message on my computer that the phone had been turned on and I copied down the address that it showed (it was local). I called the police and surprisingly they sent someone right out. Well apparently the house that it showed up at was an employee of food services at the airport. They didn’t have a search warrant but they were able to convince him to give up the phone and even drove it back to my house that night (never did see the case again though). Quite an amazing recovery! Ends up the food service guy had been sold it by an employee that worked for the cleaning company of the airline I flew on and he was prosecuted.

  4. We left a book with 10-15 Disney/Pixar DVD’s in the plane. Reported at the lost and found at the airport. Never to be see again! Same with my Mom’s camera.

  5. I used to take the same flight every week for a period of a few months. I was using my bluetooth earpiece for a call when I was boarding. When the call finished, I threw the earpiece in the seatback pocket and forgot about it. When we landed, I gathered my luggage and left the plane, leaving the earpiece behind.
    The following week I was sitting in the same seat on the same plane, and I checked the seatback pocket and found it!

  6. Thankfully, I’ve only left one thing on a plane. I don’t remember what it was, but I realized I left it while still on the jet bridge deplaning. I turned around and apparently, you’re not supposed to get back on the plane after getting off because the flight attendant stopped me, but I explained and was able to get (whatever it was), which was still at my seat.

  7. Even if the airline has an online lost and found, call the baggage office of the airline at your destination. They may not publish the number, but if you call the aiport’s general number, you can get through (at least at MSY). I left a painting in the closet on an AA flight and this is how I recovered it.

  8. Summer: No biggie, if you have your purchase receipt, file a claim on homeowner’s insurance. If not, caulk it up to “Stuff Happens!”.

    • Oh it will certainly go in the ‘stuff happens’ file, but worth filling out the online form and made me think of writing this post. Hopefully helps someone else!

  9. Had to change airlines in Honolulu — left my prescription glasses and my iPad! Upon return to the Honolulu airport on the way home, American’s Lost & Found did have my glasses and several iPads that were not mine. At least it was passcode protected and set up thru find my iPhone so if anyone was able to connect it to the interest, everything would be erased. I need an itemized checklist to follow before I get off a plane…and other places. Left a new coat in the ladies room at Heathrow (in the secured area of course). By the time we were able to re-enter, it was gone of course. Jet lag and trip excitement and just plain trying to concentrate on too many things at once just make it easier to forget something.

  10. A little more difficult and labor-intensive solution, but here’s something else to try, especially if the item has particular value (emotional or financial), and one is willing to put in the effort.

    TL;DR – When boarding a plane, note the tail / registration number of the aircraft, use that to track the next airport(s) where your specific aircraft is heading, then reach out to that airline’s airport staff (gate agents preferred, but likely baggage office) and see if anything has been turned in by the aircraft cleaning crew. Time is of the essence; the faster you realize you are missing something, the more likely you can be reunited with your item(s).

    On mainline jets EXCEPT the 757, for aircraft registered in the U.S., when boarding take a look above the door you just entered, and you will find an “FAA Certificate of Airworthiness” which has the registration number, that in the U.S. begins with the letter “N”. If on a 757, you can ask the crew for the number (it will be on their flight manifest, or cabin crew can ask the flight deck), or you can just try and note the tail number painted on the plane (if you can see it from the boarding area), or when boarding through a jetway that has clear windows, look for the fleet number which will be painted on the exposed front landing gear door, below the flight deck. On regional jets, there is usually a registration number on or near the door of the flight deck. Note that there is a distinction between tail (registration) number, which is what is registered with the government, and fleet number, which is internally specific to a particular airline.

    One time a traveling companion had left an item on the aircraft we had recently deplaned, but did not realize that the item was missing until after arriving back at home (about 90 minutes after we had landed). I first did research to see if I could find a number at the airport to speak to someone at the gate. Via a phone customer service agent (I suppose I could have used Twitter, but it was late at night), I was able to get the number for the airline’s baggage claim office, called and explained the situation, and asked if they could check with gate agents at the gate where my plane arrived (if one doesn’t remember the specific gate, one can use an airline’s app to check at which gate it arrived) to see if anything was found and reported by the airplane cabin cleaning crew. Unfortunately, that yielded no results.

    So then I took the next step of figuring out where the next destination was of the plane we had just flown. If you have the tail number of the aircraft (which I, as an #avgeek keep track of), then you can use to see where your specific aircraft is headed. I was not flying United, but UA is good about providing the fleet numbers of the aircraft in their flight status information on their website or app, but that internal UA fleet number would then need to be translated into a tail number (for this, one can use to search for United’s fleet number, which will then track back to a tail registration number). Other airlines are not so great at providing fleet numbers/tail numbers, but again, as an AVGEEK, I noted this information down when I boarded. Once I knew where my aircraft was headed (it was still in mid-air when we realized an item was left on board), I again called customer service, obtained the phone number of the airline’s baggage claim office at that airport, and asked them to please check with the gate agents at the gate where my flight was arriving to ask the cleaning crew to check for the missing item “near or around seat ###.”

    After all of this effort, the lost item was found and ultimately returned to us!

  11. I have a left a couple of items-an iPad in the seat back pocket but discovered it was gone while I was still at the airport (in fact at the Centurion Club in IAH). The desk agent at the Centurion Club called to the gate, and they said it was was in a supervisor’s office near the gate. Fortunately, I had time to get back over there before my connecting flight which was on to Munich.

    Wayyy back in the day–early 90’s, I left the second half of a my paper ticket (for my connecting flight) in the seat back pocket. I was using as a bookmark in my paperback. It was a royal pain to have the United customer service reissue the flight coupon and boarding pass. And it was my friend’s book I’d borrowed so I felt obligated to buy her a new one…

    And the one that makes the most irritated, was a time I got upgraded (on United) and I was wearing a fleece jacket. The flight attendant asked if she could hang it up and I said no, it was ok. She insisted so I let her, but she didn’t give it back before we landed and I completely forgot–it must have been warmer at my destination. I filled out the form online, but of course, never saw it. That was 4 or 5 years ago. I still miss that jacket… 🙂

  12. After our trip to Universal Orlando this February, our connecting flight got cancelled and the new flight got delayed and we ended up in the Admirals Club lounges at PHL for 8 hours. My son & I were both exhausted when it was time to get on the plane, and my son left his new Ravenclaw watch at the lounge. We called American Airlines the next day and told them what had happened. At first, they told me to fill out one of those missing item forms online, but I asked if I could be connected directly to the lounge, since we were pretty sure it was there. The people at the lounge were super helpful, and found it, and got it shipped right back to us. We had to pay the shipping, but it was well worth it. Child meltdown crisis averted!

  13. This happened to us last summer when we flew Swiss Airlines from
    LAX to Zurich. My 5 year old daughter brought her lovie (a little stuff animal dog she had been attached to since she was 9 months old). The flight on Swiss in coach is easily the worst flight ever – it’s increibly tight and I’m only 5’3” and 115 pounds. Since it was an evening flight, my daughter feel asleep as usual with her lovie and I remember telling myself not to forget it. Well, in the haste of wanting to get off the plane, we forgot the lovie. It was likely balled up in one of the blankets on the floor. When our driver picked us up and I was strapping my kid in she said “where’s doggie?” And we knew we forgot him.

    As we went to the hotel, my husband stayed behind hoping they’d let him back on the plane but couldn’t. We spent the entire two weeks calling lost and found but nobody turned it in. It sucked! We bought the kid another lovie which she’s attached to now. I’m afraid to bring Tracey on our next trip.

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