‘They are unsung heroes’: 88% of lost odd items at SEA Airport reunited with owners

SEATAC, Wash. — When his luggage made it on the flight from Seattle to New Jersey but his jacket was left behind, traveler Anders Tron-Haukebo stood at SEA’s Lost and Found window full of hope, and so we moved in, to see what would happen.

“A yellow jacket, I left it at TSA,” Tron-Haukebo explained to the Lost and Found associate through the window. “I sent in both a written letter and electronic to let you know that I wanted my jacket back.”

In less than five minutes, the associate located, retrieved and returned the lost jacket through the slot in the window.

“Success,” shouted Tron-Haukebo. “I’m so impressed! Thank you!”

What Tron-Haukebo didn’t know was the sophisticated image-recognition technology — used by Hallmark Aviation behind the scenes — helped the SEA Lost and Found staff locate his prized yellow jacket, which had been filed in a labyrinth of lost items, within a few seconds.

“They are unsung heroes,” Tron-Haukebo said.

Behind the counter, Tony Patterson is one of those unsung heroes.

“I do the best job in the world. Lost and found,” Patterson said.

He was trained by Hallmark Aviation to use proprietary software which uses image recognition to ensure any lost items can be rapidly returned to distressed travelers. Anything left between departures, arrivals the TSA security checkpoints and the gates is funneled to the Lost and Found staff.

When asked if he gets requests for hugs from relieved travelers, Patterson said, “I’ve been asked, ‘Can you come outside so I can hug you?’”

While Tony was explaining his role, one of hundreds of lost cellphones began suddenly calling out from a storage box. Immediately, some Lost and Found team members dashed in to see if the owner was calling it.

Tony said he was very confident most of the items turned into Lost and Found would be returned to their owners, because of the powerful new tech tools to track, file and store anything and everything lost in the airport.

“These are all the items that we logged in basically from the month of January,” Patterson said.

The array and value of lost items is staggering.

“Laptops, cellphones, iPad tablets, to guitars, ukuleles,” he said. “To even stranger items making you ask: ‘Why travel with that?”’

Patterson hoisted a box from one of the shelves. “Look! a Chia pet,” he said.

Coats in the winter take up the most space there. But there are carts loaded with what appears to be an entire family’s packed luggage, left behind.

There are more keys than anything another single item there. Untold tens of thousands of keys and fobs and lanyards, with no IDs unlocking the mystery of who left them behind.

Behind all the lost items is an incredible success rate of the Lost and Found staff finding the people who forgot all this stuff.

In January, 88% of all lost items at SEA were reunited with the owners, according to Hallmark Aviation records.

What makes Patterson so confident is the work his staff begins, often before a person even realizes they’ve left something behind. It’s like CSI for something you left at the TSA. Tony calls his reuniters “detectives.”

“They’re detectives and researchers,” he said. “We will search social media, websites, we’ll search emails. We try to find phone numbers, family members, friends — anything that we can find to link an item to an individual.”

Type in a description of any item into their Lost and Found search engine, and images appear of anything which may be close. Staff members log every detail of a lost item like a phone, check the screen saver, and ask Siri, ’What’s my name?’ then they search for that person.

“It’s not to the extent of the Hollywood CSI, but with the software, we do have that ability to reunite those items with people,” said Ken Pierce with Hallmark Aviation.

I asked Patterson the most bizarre thing he’s ever seen there.

“A box of rubies,” he said, describing pink rocks in a wooden box. Patterson later found out they were really rubies in the rough. “It was just a chest, a box of rocks,” he said. “Who’s traveling with a box of rocks? No wonder they left it behind, it’s just rocks!”

When the owner claimed the box after 28 days and described the potential value of the hidden jewels inside, both Patterson and the owner of the rubies were overjoyed.

“This guy jumped for joy,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody just that happy!”

Patterson pulled out a C-Pap machine from a bin. “So this person left a C-Pap, didn’t have it in a bag,” Patterson said. Minutes later, the Lost and Found “detectives” located the owner, in Alberta, Canada.

Bringing joy and relief to replace a sense of loss is just another day at SEA lost and found.

“Sometimes your loss is a blessing to someone,” said Rod Blalock, a volunteer with the Des Moines Lions Club. Every month Blalock picks up hundreds of prescription glasses which were left behind and unclaimed.

Every pair will be cleaned, examined by volunteer opticians and optometrists, separated by lens power, and then prescribed to people in need across South America.

“Someone who was unable to previously have glasses would now be having glasses,” Blalock said. “One person’s loss is another person’s clear vision,” he said.

Other items which are unclaimed after 28 days are donated to charities, like Seattle Children’s hospital.

“None of this goes to waste or goes to a landfill,” said Patterson. “Someone’s loss is really someone else’s gain.”