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Oops, I left my iPad on the plane

If you did, you're far from the only one. Unfortunately, airlines are having a very difficult time reconnecting lost tablets with their owners.

By MSN Money Partner Apr 26, 2012 5:14PM

This post comes from Scott McCartney at partner site The Wall Street Journal.


The Wall Street Journal on MSN MoneyThe plane lands, travelers grab their stuff, check their phones for email and voicemail and file past flight attendants for one last "buh-bye." But increasingly, harried passengers are leaving something behind: their iPads.


Image: Passengers on an airplane (© Image Source/Getty Images)Airlines say they are warehousing hundreds of iPads and other tablet computers and e-readers left behind by travelers. Carriers try to reunite the devices with their owners but are often thwarted by the lack of ID tags, password protection and Apple's reluctance to track down owners based on serial numbers.


Delta Air Lines says it has several dozen unclaimed iPads in Atlanta, its largest hub, and a bunch more at other hub airports around the world. Southwest Airlines says it has a "great number" of iPads. Virgin America Airlines says it ends up donating one or two every month to a San Francisco charity after declaring them lost causes after 30 days. (The length of time a lost item is kept varies by airline.)


"A bare iPad without any identifying feature is difficult for us," said Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant.


After landing, travelers often grab their phones. But their thin tablets and electronic readers, typically stuffed in seat-back pockets, aren't necessarily top of mind when they rush off planes. The devices can be hard to spot if covered up by discarded papers, magazines or trash. And airlines say they see more and more kids on airplanes using iPads to watch movies and play games -- and apparently leaving them behind, too. (Post continues below video.)

Logically, owners would contact airlines immediately after realizing their right hand was missing. But carriers say that often doesn't happen -- people assume the device was stolen or figure it was left somewhere else like a hotel or security checkpoint.


"Sometimes owners do not file a claim, apparently thinking that once it's lost, it's gone," said Tim Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines.


That happens not only with iPads and electronic devices, but with all kinds of passenger belongings, airlines say.

And sometimes when customers do contact the airline, there aren't any identifying features to single out their iPad from the room full of devices -- they don't have the serial number or a unique case, for example. Currently, iPads come in only two colors.


In many cases, when unidentifiable devices are found, airlines use flight information and seat numbers to send emails to travelers asking if they left anything onboard.


Julie Del Santo and her husband, Tony, left an iPad onboard a Virgin America flight to San Francisco from Palm Springs, Calif., earlier this month. The couple and their two small children had waited out a six-hour weather delay, and after the midnight landing they were eager to get home.


"Our minds were fried," she said.


Twenty minutes after leaving the airport, she got an email on her BlackBerry from the airline asking her to call the local baggage office.


"Immediately my husband said, 'Oh, no. My iPad,'" she said.


The direct number was answered even though it was after midnight. After describing the device, she had Virgin America ship it via FedEx to her office.


"That was a class act," she said. From past experiences with airlines, "it's like pulling teeth to get something back."


Emailing potential owners by seat number doesn't work if travelers don't have contact information on file at the airline, or if the aircraft itself has flown several other trips before the lost device is discovered. Planes often don't always get cleaned thoroughly after every flight.


Some carriers say half the iPads they find go unclaimed. That is all the more surprising since the latest versions of the popular electronic tablet have a "Find My iPad" tracking option. An owner who has registered the device and loaded that application can track the location of the device and even send a message to it so that someone who powered it up would get a message with the owner's contact information.


The tracking option, though, has its limitations. Some owners don't set it up, and even if they do, the device has to be connected to the Internet by Wi-Fi or cellular service. An iPad locked in a baggage room at an airport may be literally left in the dark.


Virgin America, which in March collected six iPads left behind from 527,000 passengers, with a few iPads still unclaimed, invested in a massive charging station to power up lost devices. Airport workers take a photo of the device with the seat number, date and flight number written on it. When a customer calls in, the airline can search through the digital pictures.


"We are seeing fewer phones left behind, but a lot more iPads and Kindles," said Tim Thornton, director of airport operations and guest services for Virgin America.


When phones do get left behind, airlines say they have an easier time repatriating them with owners. Airlines try to keep them charged up, figuring owners will call. Many aren't password-protected or have contact information that is easily found. Sometimes simply redialing the last call connects to owners.


Kindle electronic readers are easier to reunite with owners than iPads are, airlines say, because they often aren't locked with password protection. That means email addresses can be retrieved. And carriers say Amazon has been cooperative about contacting owners based on serial numbers.


Several carriers say Apple, on the other hand, won't help when only a serial number is identified. US Airways Group said its baggage service unit actually worked out a special relationship with Apple, but other carriers say they haven't been able to do that.


An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.


Theft of iPads and other devices has also been a problem for travelers. Airlines say they police their cleaning crews and often require two people to work a plane at the same time. While cleaners turn in many expensive computers and some wallets full of cash, there also have been instances of workers getting caught pocketing found valuables.


Worse, baggage handlers and Transportation Security Administration officers have been caught stealing valuables from checked luggage. Some have been arrested for removing items they've seen on X-ray images of luggage -- they know right where to grab.

In January, TSA officer Clayton Keith Dovel was accused of taking eight iPads from bags checked at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. He has been charged with theft by a public servant after one victim said he used "Find My iPad" to track the device to Dovel's home in Bedford, Texas.


Airlines exclude valuables and computer equipment from liability and reimbursement if luggage is lost or stolen, and travelers should always carry computers, cameras and jewelry with them onboard rather than checking it in luggage.


Protecting yourself

How to safeguard data and personal information on iPads, tablets and e-readers:


For a new device

  • Apple can engrave information on the back. Securely taping a business card to the device works, too.
  • Buy a brightly colored case that is easy to spot in a messy airplane cabin. A unique case will also help airline personnel locate the device in a storage room.
  • Enable cloud storage for sensitive data, such as Apple's iCloud, Google Drive or Dropbox.
  • Go to settings on your iPad and enable Find My iPad.
  • Set up your screen saver to display a phone number that someone can see even if the device is locked.
  • Keep serial numbers of all devices in a safe place. That will help the manufacturer's customer-service representatives offer guidance.

Before a flight

  • When purchasing a plane ticket, provide a phone number that the airline can use to contact you.
  • Write down flight numbers and seat assignments for each leg of your trip to help airline personnel narrow their search.

After you realize it's lost

  • Contact the airline immediately and file a claim. Check the carrier's policy on how long an item is kept before being donated or sold to a third-party company.
  • On iPads, enable Find my iPad. The location of the device will be displayed on a map. It can play a sound -- overriding volume or silent settings -- to help with the search.
  • On the Samsung Galaxy Tab, enable the Find My Mobile feature to trace the location of the device.

Last resort

  • On the Kindle Fire, Nook, Sony and other e-readers, go online or call customer service to de-register the device. That keeps anyone who finds it from making purchases using credit card information associated with the device. Also cancel any automatic subscriptions until the device is found.
  • On iPads, go to the iTunes store to cancel any automatic subscriptions and remove credit card information associated with the device.
  • Apple and Samsung let you initiate a remote wipe to restore the device to its factory settings. Data can be restored using your most recent backup from the cloud.

More from The Wall Street Journal and MSN Money:

May 3, 2012 2:34PM
Clearly I need to work at a airline. So I can get a free ipad!
May 3, 2012 4:17PM
Spirit Airlines would charge the owner a fee to get it back.
May 3, 2012 3:05PM
of course apple doesn't cooperate they know you will be stupid enough to just go buy another one
May 3, 2012 3:50PM
The airlines should not have to babysit your stuff.  Care and custody of your own items would not make this article necessary.  I don't want to pay more for an airline ticket because they've had to pay someone to be a "detective", finding owners of lost stuff.
In my opinion, an ipad is an expensive, luxury item that one should be careful with and always know it's whereabouts.
May 3, 2012 4:52PM

Spirit airline probably sell all iPads they find on eBay and then charge customers storage fee.

May 3, 2012 6:09PM
Apple does not want to reunite lost IPADS with their owners because they want them to buy again.
May 3, 2012 3:09PM
Yes, I am one of those idiots who left their iPad behind.  And yes, it has the "Find My iPad" app on it, but the problem is, I left it in airplane mode!  Southwest says they have a great number of iPads?  Wouldn't know it from talking to them!  Try to get someone to talk to and get a different answer from each.  Gave them all the identifiers such as color, cover color, back cover color.  Lost on 4/28.  Absolutely no activity on the 4g, which would still be active even if wiped out.  Southwest needs to get busy plugging in the "great number" of iPads they have and getting them on the internet so the tracking software can work!  I bet they would find at least half of the owners of the lost items if they just took that simple step.  All they have to do is take mine off the airplane mode and a message with my home phone number will appear for them!  I know I have to take the blame for losing it, but c'mon Southwest!  
May 3, 2012 5:01PM
One problem is once you leave the plane you are not allowed back on.  I read a story online just a few weeks back where a passenger accidentally left their iPad on the plane and realized it about 10-15 minutes after leaving the plane.  They went back to the gate and were told they could not go aboard (the plane was still there and empty) to find it and that it would be turned into lost and found... needless to say even a week after the event the iPad never made it to lost and found.  Airlines in general have become a pain in the butt; high rates, small cramped seats, service has been cut down and everything little thing has a fee. 
May 3, 2012 5:04PM
THis just inspired me to slip my business card into my Kindle case.

May 3, 2012 4:17PM
That's messed up that Apple wont help airlines find the owners.  I'm sure they would much rather you just go buy another one so why would they help you find the one you already paid them for.
May 3, 2012 4:00PM
Just waiting for some nit wit to try and sue the airlines over leaving these things behind... "it's the airline's fault...they should have reminded us one more time, before we exited the plane". If you can't keep up with your gadgets, maybe you shouldn't own any.
May 3, 2012 3:40PM
BeefStu - Do you really expect them to spend countless hours tracking down the owner? Be responsible, and keep track of your own things. They're not your parents, it's not their responsibility.
May 3, 2012 5:53PM
May 3, 2012 4:44PM
I wonder how many of them leave a second, or even third $500 toy on the airplane for someone more deserving to come along and find. Finders keepers, losers weepers. Stop complaining that you can't keep up with your gadgets. Who puts your pants on in the morning, then ties your shoes for you??
May 3, 2012 3:32PM
I used to work for an airline.  Stewardesses make about 17K a year, mechanics 15-18/hr, the folks cleaning the planes maybe 10/hr.  These are approximations in my experience.  When people turn things in, more often than not, the person you give the item to just became the new owner.  Hey, your a grown up.  Take care of your sh*t.
May 3, 2012 3:55PM
I bet Virgin takes a tax deduction for charity when they donate someone else's I-pad
May 3, 2012 7:30PM
If the airlines are storing these ipads why don't they publish an email address where people who lost there ipads can send their serial number to.  If the airline can match it up with their own data base they can ship the ipad to the owner and charge them a small shipping an handling fee to offset their cost of storage.
May 3, 2012 2:47PM
This story wouldn't irritate me as much if there wasn't a reality tv show about idiots going to auctions to bid on unclaimed/lost luggage.  How can a bag get loaded without having a tag on it?
May 3, 2012 5:08PM
Yeah, people forget things, it happens. My mother ha left her phone an airplane twice and both times, on different airlines mind you(American and JetBlue), she got a call within 24 hours saying they had her phone and they shipped it to her for free. To say airlines don't try is a flat out lie. Don't blame them because you forgot your iPad or Kindle that you "Had to have because, god forbid, you have to lug that heavy book around" or whatever mindless activity you use it for.

And, are any of you REALLY surprised that Apple is full of douche bags? In a world where everything is becoming connected, Apple is the kid on the playground their fingers in their ears going, "la-la-la I can't hear you!"

May 3, 2012 3:34PM
Apple won't help because every phone call for help means another iPad sales is in the near future.
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