Recently while going through security at San Francisco International Airport, I saw a woman who had really tied one on. I'm not talking about throwing a few back at the terminal watering hole. These were different colored ribbons tied around four different fingers. After she cleared security, she stepped aside and checked each finger off while talking to herself.
"What's with the ribbons," I asked, worried it might be another weird terrorist trick along the line of setting your shoe on fire.
"It's how I keep track of my carry-on," she answered. Apparently the red one tells her to check for her cellphone. The blue one asks if she has her computer. The yellow one says make sure you've got your purse. And the green one tells her to stop and check it over one more time. It seemed like overkill, but not to her.
Last year, she got so rattled while living through a way too personal pat-down that she arrived at her gate without her computer. And apparently somebody with slippery fingers slipped it into their carry-on and carried it off. Now she goes to extremes to keep track of her personal items.
She's not alone. According to one Chicago security agent, passengers forget things every day. It's common to see books, eyeglasses and jewelry left behind. According to him, by the end of the day, there's always a pile of unclaimed goods that have no identification.
Even money gets left behind. According to the Transportation Security Administration, during 2010 more than $400,000 in coins was abandoned at airport security check points.
It's not just airport security areas that rake in lost items. Airlines report carry-on luggage left on planes and unclaimed baggage left on baggage carousels is just as common.
Some of the luggage, according to transportation agent Tom Benjamin, is lost by the airline. Occasionally a bag gets tagged wrong and heads for the wrong destination. But most of the lost items are simply forgotten by passengers. The airline tries to find the owner. But if the bag isn't claimed after 30 to 60 days, it may be sold to a salvage company, which then sells the items themselves.
If you've lost any baggage and happen to be near Huntsville, Ala., check out the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Ala. Unclaimed and lost luggage arrives daily at this gigantic outlet that covers nearly 50,000 square feet. Besides suitcases, some strange things often land here. On any given day, you may find wedding dresses, camera equipment and jewelry. But you might also find a parachute, a suit of armor or a guidance system for an F16 fighter jet. One lucky visitor bought a pair of ski boots for his wife. When he arrived home, he discovered they were the same boots she had lost a year ago on a trip to Colorado.
If you would prefer Alabama's Unclaimed Baggage Center isn't left holding your bag, take some precautions:
• Double check your claim ticket. Make sure your bag is flying to your destination.
• Place identification tags inside your bag as well as on the outside.
• Make a list of the contents and leave a copy at home as well as with you.
Finally, keep track of your carry-on luggage. Tying a ribbon around your finger may seem a little extreme, but it beats having someone else finger your belongings.
• Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.