Do 12,000 laptops go missing each week at U.S. airports?

A study recently released by Dell and the Ponemon Institute that claims 12,000 laptops are lost, missing or stolen each week at U.S. airports isn't easily supported by data reported by three of the airports in the study, as well as data from the Transportation Security Administration.

The study, independently conducted by the Ponemon Institute LLC for Dell, was based on "a confidential field survey" of airport personnel not identified in the report.

One airport, Miami International, was identified in the report as having approximately 1,000 laptops lost, missing or stolen each week, the second-highest laptop loss frequency among all airports after Los Angeles International, at 1,200 a week.

Computerworld asked Miami International officials to provide what records they have on lost, missing and stolen laptops. Their data shows that for all of 2007, there were 68 laptops reported as stolen, and 480 laptops were turned in to the airport's lost and found. The TSA in Miami also reported that in the 12-month period that ended May 31, it had received only 38 missing laptop claims.

The study says that for all airports, the most common airport locations where laptops are lost are security checkpoints, at 40%, followed by departure gates, at 23%.

"We consider this study very nonscientific," said Sari Koshetz, a TSA spokeswoman, who added the study doesn't accurately reflect the number of laptops lost at TSA checkpoints. The TSA says that, nationally, about 75 laptops are reported lost or missing each month. More than 2 million passengers go through TSA checkpoints each day.

The data reported by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Dulles International Airport, also doesn't correlate to the study. In the case of National Airport, the study estimates that 450 laptops are lost, missing or stolen there each week. However, for all of 2007, the airport authority said there were 276 laptops turned in to the lost and found.

At Dulles, 43 laptops were turned over to the airport's lost and found in 2007. The study estimates that 400 laptops are lost each week at Dulles.

A Washington Airports Authority spokeswoman attaches caveats to their findings. She said they only represent laptops found in public areas of the airports, such as bag claim areas, airport shuttles and restaurants. A laptop left on an aircraft would be handled by the airline. If the laptop is left at a TSA checkpoint, the TSA would take responsibility for it, so the numbers of lost and missing laptops isn't complete.

Larry Ponemon, who heads the research institute, said the difference between laptop incident numbers reported by the airports is a result of the methodology used by his researchers. The study involved interviews with "rank and file" airport personnel who cover a wide range of areas in the airport, including TSA checkpoints, facilities, departure gates and airport retail establishments.

Those airport workers are more aware of what Ponemon said accounts for the lion's share of the 12,000 laptops lost each week: Laptops that are temporarily lost in airports but quickly recovered. One example would be someone leaving an airport restaurant or security checkpoint without his or her laptop, but then promptly returns to claim it. That incident is not reported in official statistics, he said.

Ponemon said he stands by his finding that 12,000 laptops are lost at airports each week, but said he plans to revise the study to better explain its methodology. He also said there is a need to clarify the report's assertion that "only 33% of the laptops lost and found in airports are reclaimed."

Ponemon said he believes the recovery rate of lost laptops may be as high as 85% because laptop owners who are temporarily separated from their computers are likely to be reunited with them.

Even for those laptops that turn up in an airport lost and found, Washington Airport authorities say the recovery rate is high. At Dulles, 37 of the 43 laptops lost in 2007 were returned to owners; at Reagan National, 269 of the 276 lost laptops were also returned. Ponemon said his study reflects the varying rates of success, depending on how aggressive individual airports are in reuniting laptops with owners.

Ponemon said he is planning a second study to help validate the results of this laptop loss study by surveying business travelers about their own experiences with laptops.

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This story, "Do 12,000 laptops go missing each week at U.S. airports?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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