Jeffrey R. Neuman had flown halfway to Chicago when he glanced at his wrist and "got a sinking feeling."
His vintage Cartier watch, which his wife gave him two decades ago, was missing. Panicked, the Burbank marketing executive asked her to call lost-and-found at LAX while he tried to find a replacement online. She called the Transportation Security Administration.
"I knew it wouldn't be at the TSA," Neuman said.
He was wrong. He had left the watch at a security checkpoint, and TSA staff offered to express mail it to him.
Like Neuman, thousands of passengers leave behind treasures at LAX and other airport security checkpoints every year. Also like him, many assume their stuff has been stolen or is gone forever. They may be wrong too.
The TSA and airport police at LAX maintain lost-and-found departments that hold hundreds of items left by harried fliers at checkpoints, terminals, washrooms and other public areas. They try to reunite what they find with the owners. With staffs in single digits, "try" is the operative word.
"We do what we can," said Nico Melendez, a spokesman for the TSA, which has a five-person lost-and-found department for LAX. "We don't have the manpower to call on all these."
But officials say they make a mighty effort.
TSA employees said they had traced owners of keys by phoning stores listed on attached magnetic-stripe tags; contacted owners of driver's licenses through social-networking websites; and tracked down cellphone owners by dialing the last number on the call log and asking, "Do you know this person?"
Los Angeles World Airport Police recently returned a Rolex watch to its owner after taking it apart, getting the serial number and contacting the manufacturer to trace the sale, said Sgt. Jim Holcomb, a spokesman.
Not every item is so valuable, of course. At security checkpoints, fliers often forget belts or other clothing, said Hector Moreno, the TSA's property custodian at LAX.
The top five items left elsewhere in the airport: cellphones, luggage, assorted electronics such as cameras and DVD players, laptop computers and clothing, Holcomb said.
Less commonly, the TSA has retrieved false teeth, funeral urns with ashes and a $350,000 bag of jewelry that was never claimed. One bin I viewed recently at LAX was filled with passports. And there were plenty of walkers and canes.
Each day, the TSA rounds up about 400 objects from checkpoints at LAX, Moreno said. It logs them by description, when and where they were found and other data, which employees enter into a database.
The agency holds most items for 30 days and then arranges to have unclaimed ones donated to government bodies, such as schools, and unusable ones destroyed, Melendez said. Unclaimed cash, he added, eventually helps fund the TSA.
LAX police hold items for 97 days and then generally donate unclaimed clothing to charity and auction off other items, Holcomb said.
And yes, theft happens. Nationwide, the TSA has fired about 250 officers (out of about 115,000 employed during the last six years) accused of theft, Melendez said.
Passengers steal too. Last month, a flier was caught taking "a better laptop" at LAX, said Alfred Howard, TSA logistics supervisor at the airport. Here's how to reduce chances of losing your stuff at the airport and increase chances of recovering it:
* Carry on valuables. Most thefts by TSA staff involve checked bags, Melendez said. For every TSA employee who handles a bag, seven to 10 airline or contract employees may also handle it, he added.
* Mark everything with a phone number and an e-mail address. Tape a business card to your laptop.
* Consolidate items. Melendez said he puts his keys and cellphone in his laptop case before going through security.
* Know whom to contact. Each airport may work differently. At LAX, if you think the loss happened at a security checkpoint, call the TSA at (310) 665-7382. (For more information, visit www.tsa.gov, click on "For Travelers" and select "Lost & Found Contact Numbers.")
If you think you left your item somewhere other than a TSA checkpoint, contact your airline or the LAX Airport Police Lost & Found; (310) 417-0440, www.lawa.org/lax/lostFound.cfm.