Navigating National Airport’s Lost and Found

You wouldn't believe some of the things passengers leave behind at airport security. But Nakia Martin would.


Photo by Michael Ventura

Name: Nakia Martin

Age: 37

Lives In: Clinton, Maryland, with children Jayla, Marnai and Na’Im

Résumé: Lost-and-found property technician, Reagan National Airport, since 2013. Previously worked in the airport’s engineering maintenance department, handling work orders, distributing uniforms and maintaining reports.

What people lose: Passports, Bibles, keys, shoes, books, coats, electronics. We’ve got strollers, a hoverboard, backpacks and a big chemical sprayer in here now. There’s a whole cabinet of jewelry that we lock at the end of the day. Driver’s licenses, credit cards, cell- phones, cash…

Weird finds: Once the airport police turned in $13,000 cash. An older guy came in and told us it was for his son’s wedding. We’ve had teeth, a prosthetic leg, a power saw, a dog kennel. There’s a fax machine on the shelf. Oh, and rubber butt padding—someone came back and got that.

Detective work: If electronics don’t have a passcode, we can go through the inbox and find emails. Maybe there are a lot of similar last names. If a phone isn’t locked, we can call “my number” or “home.” Or I’ll try the last number: “Did you just call someone’s phone? I’m calling from lost-and-found at the airport….” There’s a pause while they think about it, and then, “Oh, yeah!” If I can find a ticket or boarding pass, I can call an airline and say a passenger left a bag and we have it. Books are hard except library books. We’ll go through a suitcase and find an address or itinerary or email. Poster tubes sometimes have an address. Then we send an inquiry letter.

Reactions: People may start out stressed or frustrated, but when they hear that we have their item, their attitude totally changes: “Oh my god, I want to kiss you, I want to hug you, you just made my day!” I have a file full of thank-you letters. Last week airport police found a Florida woman’s driver’s license and she said, “That is so delicious!” That was a new one. But when we don’t have something, people can get angry.

Unhappy endings: The most heartbreaking thing about working here is old people traveling by themselves. They leave stuff a lot, like tablets and cellphones, and that really bothers me. They just can’t remember: “My grandbaby gave it to me. I think it was an iPad…it was right here on the side of my wheelchair…” But the worst was this 12-year-old girl whose father gave her a blanket before he went back into the service. He died overseas. She came in with her mom. We never had it. We try—we get the police involved, call Travelers Aid, the cab companies—but if nothing comes in, all I can do is take a name and number and say I’ll get in touch if anything turns up.

Rated R: No one’s ever embarrassed. They want their stuff. They’ll laugh and say, “Did you see anything you weren’t supposed to? Did you go through my phone? Did you go through my pictures?” And yeah, sometimes on phones, a photo just pops up. We say, “No, we just go through the contacts to see if we can find a way to get your stuff back to you.”

Travel tips: I have kids; I know what it’s like to have so many items and lose track. Seeing parents come through here with their children, I’ve learned: Pack everything in your luggage. Get a tag on your luggage, get your stuff out of the TSA bin and make sure you keep your bag with you. Some people write their name and phone number on a piece of tape and put that on the back on their phone, inside the case.

Useful skills: Being able to listen and resolve issues. Customer-service skills. Follow-up. You can’t resolve everything, but you at least try. If you don’t have patience, you can’t do this job.

Nice work: We get the most interesting things, the coolest things, the weirdest things. Every day customers tell us funny stories about how they lost their stuff. We laugh with them every day.

Writer Ellen Ryan flew to National Airport by herself at age 6.

Categories: People
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