LOS ANGELES - 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 marketing executive asked her to call lost-and-found at Los Angeles International Airport 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 Los Angeles and other airport security checkpoints every year. Also like him, many assume their stuff has been stolen or is gone forever. They might be wrong, too.
The TSA and Los Angeles airport police 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 Web sites; and tracked down cell-phone 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 in Los Angeles.
The top five items left elsewhere in the airport: cell phones, 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.
Each day, the TSA rounds up about 400 objects from Los Angeles checkpoints, 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.
Airport 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 past six years) accused of theft, Melendez said.
Passengers steal, too. In June, a flier was caught taking "a better laptop" in Los Angeles, 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 also might 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 cell phone in his laptop case before going through security.
*Know whom to contact. Each airport might work differently. At Los Angeles, if you thought the loss happened at a security checkpoint, you would call the TSA. BWI Thurgood Marshall operates a Lost and Found office, which is on the upper level of the terminal between Concourses B and C - it's in the back hallway, behind the ticket counters. The phone number is 410-859-7387.
The BWI Lost and Found is primarily for items left throughout the airport terminal. The TSA also holds items that are lost at the security checkpoints. TSA's Lost and Found office can be reached at 410-689-3620. (For more information, visit tsa.gov, click on "For Travelers" and select "Lost & Found Contact Numbers.")
Jane Engle writes for the Los Angeles Times.