Muscat: Luggage worth millions of dollars get lost in transit every year all over the world. And for once, it's the airports and airlines, not the passengers, who are complaining. Over the last couple of years, passengers have left behind a huge number of their belongings in planes after disembarking or in airport lounges prior to boarding their flights.
What's more surprising is that a large number of these passengers have not contacted the airlines or airport lounges to claim the high-end mobile phones, laptops, cameras, wallets or jewellery that they have left behind at the departure terminal or on flights.
"At Oman airports, misplaced articles are handled (and stored) mainly by airport security and are restored to the rightful owner (either directly to the passenger or through the airline) strictly upon the production of a letter and/or forms of proof (description of the contents, knowledge of the flight details, display of identity documents, etc.) from the passenger," said a senior official of Oman Air.
Amaresh Chowdhury, Country Manager of Air India and Air India Express, noted that the airlines had found mobile phones and laptops during routine inspections of flights after they had returned to India from Muscat. "These items were later handed over to the owners," he stated.
He attributed the issue of forgetfulness to the passengers' "rush to get off the plane" and added that the trend, which became noticeable a few years ago in Oman, "is increasing."
In India, the situation is even worse. "Passengers have claimed lost property worth around Rs 110 million over the past four years, while the rest, totalling more than Rs 500 million, has remained unclaimed," remarked a senior official of Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), which manages 52 airports across India.
Recently, Oman Air contacted a traveller after her arrival in Muscat because she had left behind her handbag, containing a huge sum in cash, some documents, and an identity card bearing her phone number and address. "Surprisingly, she had not even been aware that the handbag was missing until we called," a senior official of the Muscat International Airport affirmed.
In India, one of the most valuable items recovered last year was a bag containing Rs 500,000 (OMR3,500) worth of jewellery and antiques, which was found on a Muscat-bound flight at Kochi International Airport. "That time too the passenger didn't realise that anything was missing," the CISF official said.
Complaints of lost luggage have been commonplace ever since commercial air travel began, but so far, they have all been related to checked-in baggage, with passengers pointing a finger at the airlines' negligent handlers. This time, the shoe is on the other foot because the lost items are typically hand baggage.
As soon as a piece of luggage is found unattended, airport officials take it to the X-ray machine to check for explosives. Then, a public announcement is made, but by then, the passenger has already boarded the plane. "This type of baggage is termed 'found articles,' and the handling procedure depends on the particular airport, but a common practice is to safeguard the item until the owner is identified and the item is returned.
"In general, the handling of found articles at an airport is usually a housekeeping issue that is the responsibility of the airport operator rather than of the airline. Airport security is involved as well if the item is located within its facilities (i.e., security check-points) or if it is found unattended in an area where security measures are necessary.
It is only when an item is found in an airline's facility (i.e. on board) that the airline becomes directly responsible for ensuring the safety of the item and its restoration to the rightful owner. There are only a few cases like this, and they rarely involve valuables or money; they are mainly items such as coats, sweaters, headphones, and books," the official of Oman Air added.
He also noted that since the carriage of these items is exclusively at the passenger's own risk, passengers are advised to place a label or sticker with their name on it both inside and outside the unchecked baggage. "Also, at check-in, Oman Air provides hand-baggage stickers to help identify the airline on which the passenger is flying or has flown in on," he remarked.
A psychiatrist blamed two modern-day curses for air passengers' forgetfulness: anxiety and a shortened attention span. "Our attention span is getting shorter since we are often busy multitasking, which means we cannot fully focus on any one thing," he said.
He pointed out that not only were people preoccupied with many things simultaneously, but were always in a hurry too.