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Most of us are familiar with the travel anxiety of a bag not showing up on the belt after a flight. Some of us – more and more, thanks to the aviation chaos this year – know the underbelly of not showing up. But an increasing number of travelers know what it’s like to lose a bag and get it back — not because of airline zeal, but because they knew their bag’s location thanks to a tracking device they’d packed with their clothes.
Valerie Szybala is the latest with a story to tell. The Washington DC disinformation researcher received her lost luggage after nearly six days, during which she tracked it as it went to local malls and McDonald’s, while the airline told her the bag was safe in its distribution center.
In fact, it appeared to be someone’s home — an apartment complex where Szybala says she found other empty and discarded suitcases in the garbage.
The story she has to tell about how her bag was lost and found and how United Airlines handled her case is enough to make you never check a bag again.
Szybala had taken her first international trip in years—a month abroad—and flew back to D.C.’s Reagan Airport on Dec. 28. She had bought an Airtag – Apple’s tracking device – especially for the trip.
“I heard it was a thing,” she says of the 2022 travel trend of putting tracking devices in luggage to find bags in case they go missing. “I had a layover planned so I knew there was a good chance the bag would get lost.”
What she hadn’t counted on was the “crazy weather” and the “implosion” of Southwest Airlines. Although she flew United, her layover was through a Southwest hub. So it wasn’t a big surprise when she arrived in DC to learn via her United app that her bag hadn’t made it. Not that she saw any staff to talk to: “The airport was a madhouse,” she says.
Instead, Szybala trusted the app, which said the airline knew where her bag was and would return it to her the next day.
In fact, the bag arrived in DC the very next day, December 29th. But it wouldn’t be until January 2 before she got her hands on it. She accepted United’s offer to have the bag delivered directly to her home, rather than going back to the airport to collect it in person. “There I made a big mistake by having them hand it over to a third party,” she says.
December 29 came and went, and Szybala didn’t have her bag back. Then December 30, December 31, January 1 – still no bag.
“I tried to contact them every day, but the wait time on the phone was unbelievable, I never made it, and through the chat on the app, the wait time was two to four hours,” she says.
“But I did it every day and they assured me the bag is coming, it’s in our system, it’s safe in our service center, it will be delivered tonight. But that has never been true.”
Szybala actually already knew something was wrong, because thanks to the Airtag she could see exactly where the bag was. “As of 8 p.m. on Friday, May 30, it had gone to rest in an apartment complex a few miles from me,” she says.
She initially assumed it would be delivered to her the next day, but instead says, “I saw it going to McDonald’s.”
Then? “Twice to a nearby suburban mall.”
Even on Tuesday, the day she got the bag back, she saw him visiting a mall.
“Every time it went back to the apartment complex [afterward],” she says.
United representatives still told her the bag was in their distribution center, despite her evidence to the contrary. One of them even told her to “calm down,” according to the screenshot of a chat she posted on Twitter.
So Szybala decided to just go to the apartment complex where her Airtag was located. On her maiden voyage on Friday night, she didn’t find her bag — but she says she did find two other suitcases with luggage tags, opened and emptied next to the bins. One of them still had the owner’s details. Szybala emailed them to ask if their case was missing, but haven’t heard back yet.
“When I found the empty suitcases by the dumpsters, I started to worry,” she says. “And United lied to me, so I took it to Twitter.” Her January 1 photo of the suitcases by the dumpsters has been viewed more than 21 million times. She also called the police when she found the suitcases in the trash, but says they “couldn’t be much help” because she couldn’t pinpoint exactly which apartment they were in.
While Szybala says United’s Twitter team suggested she file a refund claim, she just wanted her bag back. So she kept tweeting, kept logging the bag’s location as it “visited” places, including a “European Wax Center” and a McDonald’s, and kept visiting that apartment complex as it returned “home.” On her fourth visit, which has since gone viral, she was joined by a local TV crew – and everything changed.
“We walked through the garage again, this time with a local resident who had seen my Twitter thread,” she told CNN.
“The other bags [by the dumpsters] were gone. The resident who came to help said they saw someone bring them in.”
“We peeked into suitcases to search [my case]. When I went out I got a text from a courier saying he had my bag and was just around the corner. He met me in front of the building and took my bag.”
She said the bag – which still had her luggage tag and additional ID tag on it – was still locked and the contents appeared to be intact.
Szybala said the courier — who was in an unmarked car, not an official van, and not wearing a uniform — told her that her bag had been incorrectly delivered to the Virginia suburbs, then picked up again and delivered to the apartment complex. in question.
“But I saw my bag staying in this apartment complex and doing the shopping since Friday,” she said. “My bag is still locked – it must have been in a vehicle. But I was just too excited to have my bag to ask if he’d had it all weekend.
Szybala had only recovered her purse an hour before speaking to CNN and had not fully gone through the matter, but said “everything seems fine”.
United Airlines told CNN in a statement: “The service our baggage carrier provided is not up to our standards and we are investigating what happened that led to this service outage.” They did not address the behavior of their own staff who repeatedly told Szybala that the briefcase was in United’s distribution center when in fact it was strolling around the DC suburbs.
For Szybala, the story is not over yet. “I think United should answer for these practices,” she told CNN. “Is it standard that people are allowed to take passengers’ luggage home? I feel they owe me an explanation. I don’t think I would have gotten it back if I hadn’t had the Airtag, if I hadn’t posted a viral tweet or gotten media attention.”
Her advice to travelers? “A tracking device is super useful if you have any kind of connection. Take a picture of the contents – I wish I had a list of things in my bag. And if they say they’ll deliver, don’t accept it – just say you’ll pick it up, even if the airport is two hours away.”
She’s not alone in using a tracking device to confront airlines that have lost passengers’ luggage. In April, Elliot Sharod prepared a Powerpoint presentation for Aer Lingus after the airline lost a suitcase belonging to Sharod and his new wife on their return from their South African wedding.
Of course, Apple isn’t the only company making luggage trackers — although CNN’s sister website, Underscored, last year called Airtags the “ultimate travel companion.”
They also recommended Chipolo and Tile trackers.
Airtags are not without controversy. In December, two women filed a lawsuit against Apple alleging their ex-partners used the small location devices to stalk them.