In most cases, frantic travelers at LaGuardia Airport don’t intend to leave behind the thousands of items filling the bins and shelves at the lost-and-found office.
They hear the “last call” flight warning over the loudspeakers and sprint from security checkpoints without belts, eyeglasses, car keys and an assortment of suitcases and roller bags.
But Transportation Security Administration officials still marvel over one purposefully abandoned item: a wheelchair.
The owner apparently rolled through a checkpoint and then suddenly opted to carry on by foot.
“How did they get to their destination or gate?” wonders Veda Simmons, a TSA customer support manager at LaGuardia who oversees the four-employee lost-and-found office.
So far this year, lost-and-found has logged nearly 14,000 items. Belts, neck pillows and glasses are the most common, officials say.
There’s also no shortage of kids’ items, which include a Hello Kitty doll, 1 1/2-pound box of Mike and Ike candy and a Tony Hawk Subskate Pool Skateboard, customized with the name “Josh” on it.
Hundreds of car keys hang from a rack, including those on Harvard and Mercedes-Benz chains. Some travelers don’t realize the keys are missing until they return to the airport parking lot, officials say.
Anthony Catoggio, a lead transportation security officer who works in the office, said a woman had just rushed over to retrieve her keys.
“Without them, she couldn’t get out of the garage,” he said.
There are strange items, too: a camping tent; a new cherry wood Ovation guitar, price tag still attached; even a walker, complete with tennis balls on the legs.
Items left behind at checkpoints are cataloged with time and location, and if unclaimed, taken to the lost-and-found at the end of each shift.
There, employees strive to reunite air travelers with their stuff. TSA boasts a 92 percent return rate for laptops, roughly 800 of which were left behind at LaGuardia checkpoints last year.
“They really, really, really were great,” said Thomas Holman of Douglaston, Queens, who recently recovered a laptop lost by his girlfriend’s daughter. “We instantly got it back.”
Items can be sent to owners via Federal Express or United Postal Service at their expense, or arrangements can be made for an airport pickup.
After 30 days, unclaimed items become federal property and can be donated or sold.
Forty-five boxes of clothing were donated in April to homeless veterans as part of the Clothe a Homeless Hero Act passed earlier this year, Simmons said.
The office frequently receives thank-you notes from relieved passengers. One recently sent a letter to the office — and President Barack Obama — commending TSA agents.
Another wrote: “Thank you so much for returning my necklace. I thought I might not ever see it again. It made my day when you said you had it.”
Catoggio has learned not to underestimate the sentimental value of things lost and found.
“The most valuable things aren’t a Rolex but a Casio watch that dad gave them,” he said. “It’s a fulfilling part of my job when you help them get it back.”