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Lost and Inbound

Lose something at the airport? It may just end up in the deep South.

By Dara Colwell

THE CLOSET IS in odd disarray, somewhat reminiscent of the clothing racks at Marshalls. Among the baseball caps and soiled duffel bags, a dozen or so nondescript jackets hang under the fluorescent lights: brown suede coats, black windbreakers and, my personal favorite, an olive-green terry cloth jacket. I'm in San Jose International Airport's lost-and-found cache, much less high-tech than I had envisioned, and the forgotten goodies here are probably on a track straight to a neighboring thrift store.

I can just see the green terry cloth garment's owner--probably named Brad or Chad, a twentysomething commuter from San Diego with tousled, sandy blond hair, thin, wire-framed glasses and the exciting notion that terry cloth is de rigeur in the state of California. Why was Brad, clutching his Starbucks en route to long-term parking, in such a hurry, I wonder, that he absentmindedly forgot to claim his prized possession?

But Brad, I soon learn, doesn't stand out in a crowd of neglectful passengers--at least not to airport officials. They've seen pitchforks, bikes, wheelchairs, breast pumps, sets of false teeth, a Mr. Potato Head costume and an unfinished novel cycled through lost-and-found's clutches. As I look around the room, gazing over a charcoal portrait of a young man, I'm struck by the sensation that I've wandered into the graveyard of forlorn, loveless items.

This is Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the new economy. I expected boxes of high-end Nokia cell phones, pagers, PalmPilots, Sony recorders, and the occasional laptop computer to clutter the airport's closets. As wireless electronics become standard travel buddies and the proliferation of gadgets increases in everyday use, I thought orphaned electrical gizmos would easily outpace lost keys. Not yet--there are two full boxes of unclaimed metal in the airport's storage cabinet.

"Our passengers are smart," says Jim Peterson, deputy director of business relations, like a house-proud dad. "Business travelers travel on a weekly basis to work here. They know what to do." Peterson throws some figures at me with enthusiasm: 64 percent of San Jose's airport traffic is business travelers, compared to 53 percent nationally; our average passenger is also male, 40 years old and makes $82,000 a year. "You need to know who they are to know what they're losing," Peterson observes. But our tech-savvy travelers have a solid grip on their toys--there is only a handful of cell phones in storage today. Those, and a couple of high-tech training manuals.

A greater source of lost fodder, says Peterson, are "meeters-and-greeters," airport lingo for nonpassengers dropping off or meeting the in-coming. I suspect a young meeter-greeter was responsible for the fluffy green rabbit with turned-down ears lying quietly in the corner of the lost-and-found. But you never know.

Actually, lost stuff is big business for some and great bargain-shopping for others--just check out www.unclaimedbaggage.com. Snuggled in the Appalachian Mountains and bordered by the 70,000-acre Lake Guntersville, Unclaimed Baggage's storehouse covers more than a city block. Click on to the website and the possibilities of owning someone else's stuff are endless: there are audio books like The Cat Who Said Cheese and Gone Fishin', advanced formula Shen Min hair nutrients for men, and--this is something I'd overlook--151 nutrient bars.

The airport donates all items to charity after 30 days in the hold. But for those flying the friendly skies on airlines like Southwest, everything left on the airplane is shipped off to Dallas headquarters within a matter of days. "The lost-and-found here resembles a small department store," says spokesperson Linda Rutherford. "There are suitcases, coats, crutches, pagers and sunglasses. Whatever goes unclaimed is shipped, in bulk, to a clearing house in Alabama."

While San Jose's airport staff works diligently to play detective and reunite lost items with their grieving owners, it's nice to know that everything eventually finds a home--even if it's Alabama. Somehow, I don't think Brad and his terry cloth jacket would feel out of place there.

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From the August 31-September 6, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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