(CNN) — Most people know the fear that their suitcase will not appear after a flight. Some of us, increasingly due to the aviation chaos this year, know what a blow it is that it does not appear. And more and more travelers have experienced for themselves what it is like to lose a suitcase and recover it, not because of the diligence of the airlines, but because they knew its location thanks to a tracking device that they kept in the suitcase with their clothes.
Valerie Szybala is the most recent traveler to share her story. The Washington disinformation investigator received his missing luggage after nearly six days, during which time she tracked it down as it toured local malls and McDonald’s, despite the airline telling her the bag was safe at its distribution center. .
In reality, he appeared to be at someone’s home, in an apartment complex where, according to Szybala, he found other empty and discarded suitcases lying next to the trash.
The story of how your bag was lost and found, and how United Airlines handled your case, is enough to never hold a bag again.
Szybala had made her first international trip in several years — a month abroad — and was flying back to Washington City’s Reagan Airport on December 28. He had bought an Airtag, Apple’s tracking device, especially for the trip.
“I had heard of it,” he explains, referring to the 2022 travel fad of leaving tracking devices in suitcases to find them in case they get lost. “I had a layover scheduled, so I knew the chance of the bag getting lost was high.”
What he hadn’t counted on was “crazy weather” and the “implosion” of Southwest Airlines. Although he was flying United, his layover was at a Southwest hub. So he wasn’t too surprised when he arrived in Washington when the United app informed him that his bag hadn’t arrived. It’s not like he saw anyone to talk to either: “The airport was crazy,” he says.
Instead, Szybala relied on the app, which told her the airline knew where her bag was and would return it the next day.
In fact, the suitcase arrived in Washington the next day, December 29. But he did not get it back until January 2.
He accepted United’s offer to have the bag delivered directly to his home, instead of going back to the airport to pick it up in person. “That’s where I made a big mistake, letting them hand it over to a third party,” he says.
Waiting days and false guarantees
December 29 passed and Szybala did not get his suitcase back. Then the 30th, 31st and 1st of January arrived, and he still did not receive it.
“I tried to get in touch with them every day, but the wait time on the phone was incredible, I never got it, and through the app chat the wait time was two to four hours,” he says.
“But I did it every day and they reassured me that the bag is on its way, it’s in our system, it’s safe in our service center, it’s going to be delivered tonight. But that was never true.”
In fact, Szybala already knew something was wrong, because she could see exactly where the suitcase was, thanks to the Airtag.
“On Friday the 30th at 8 pm he had ended up in an apartment complex a couple of kilometers from me,” he says.
At first he assumed it would be delivered the next day, but instead, he says, “I watched him go to McDonald’s.”
—Valerie Szybala. (@vszyb) January 2, 2023
And then? “To a nearby mall on the outskirts, twice.”
Even on Tuesday, the day he got the suitcase back, he saw her visit a shopping mall.
“Each time I went back to the apartment complex,” he says.
United representatives kept telling him the bag was at their distribution center, despite his evidence to the contrary. One even told him to “calm down,” according to a screenshot of a chat he posted on Twitter.
—Valerie Szybala. (@vszyb) January 2, 2023
Suitcases next to the garbage can
So Szybala decided to just go to the apartment complex where his Airtag was located. On his first tour, on Friday night, he did not find his suitcase, but he did find two others with luggage tags, open and empty, next to the garbage containers. One of them still contained the owner’s data. Szybala emailed them to ask if his suitcase was missing, but he has yet to hear back.
“When I found the empty suitcases next to the containers, that’s when I got worried,” he says. “And United was lying to me, so I went to Twitter.” His Jan. 1 photo of the suitcases next to the bins has been viewed more than 21 million times. He also called the police when he found the bags in the trash, but says they “couldn’t help much” as he couldn’t pinpoint the exact apartment they were in.
I’d just like everyone to know that @united has lost track of my bag and is lying about it. My apple AirTag shows that it has been sitting in a residential apartment complex for over a day. Out back by the dumpsters, I have found other emptied United Airlines bags. pic.twitter.com/fcoq4nj3zb
—Valerie Szybala. (@vszyb) January 1, 2023
Although Szybala says United’s Twitter team suggested she file a claim for a refund, she just wanted the bag back. So she kept tweeting, she kept recording the location of the suitcase when she “visited” places like a “European Wax Center” and a McDonald’s, and she kept visiting that apartment complex when she came “home.” On her fourth visit, already viral, she was accompanied by a local television crew… and everything changed.
“We went for a drive around the garage again, this time with a local resident who had seen my Twitter feed,” he told CNN.
“The other suitcases [junto a los contenedores] they had disappeared. The resident who came to help said that he had seen someone taking them inside.”
“We were looking in trunks trying to find [mi maleta]. When I got out, I got a text from a courier saying that he had my bag and it was just around the corner. He met me in front of the building and took my suitcase with him.”
He said the suitcase, which still bore his luggage tag and an additional identification tag, was still closed, and the contents appeared intact.
Szybala said the courier, who was in a car with no license plate, not an official van, and was not wearing any kind of uniform, told her that her suitcase had been mistakenly delivered to suburban Virginia, then picked up again and delivered. in the apartment complex in question.
WHEW this has been a wild ride y’all. I’m happy to report that I got my bag back!!! I’ll give more details & lessons learned later. For now I want to say thank you for all of the support, and shout out to the building resident and local news crews who came out to help =) pic.twitter.com/hCDXMreiDC
—Valerie Szybala. (@vszyb) January 2, 2023
“But I watched as my suitcase was staying in this apartment complex and running errands since Friday,” he said. “My suitcase is still locked…it must have been in a vehicle. But I was too excited to have my suitcase to ask if she’d had it all weekend.”
Szybala had retrieved her suitcase just an hour before speaking to CNN, and had not fully reviewed the contents, but said “everything seems to be in order.”
United Airlines told CNN in a statement: “The service provided by our baggage delivery provider does not meet our standards and we are investigating what occurred to cause this service failure to occur.” They did not address the behavior of their own staff, who repeatedly told Szybala that the bag was at United’s fulfillment center when in fact it was wandering around suburban Washington.
For Szybala, the story is not over. “I think United have to answer for these practices,” he told CNN. “Is it normal practice for people to take passengers’ bags home? I think they owe me an explanation. I don’t think they would have returned it to me if I hadn’t had the Airtag, if I hadn’t posted a viral tweet or called the media attention.”
His advice for travelers? “A tracking device is very useful if you have some kind of connection. Take a photo of the contents: I wish I had a list of the things I had in the suitcase. And if they say they will deliver it to you, do not accept: say you will go pick her up, even though the airport is two hours away.
Szybala isn’t the only one using a tracking device to take on airlines that have lost passenger bags. In April, Elliot Sharod prepared a Powerpoint presentation for Aer Lingus after the airline lost a suitcase belonging to Sharod and his new wife, back from his wedding in South Africa.
Of course, Apple isn’t the only company making baggage trackers, though CNN’s sister site Underscored last year called Airtags the “ultimate travel companion.”
They have also recommended Chipolo and Tile trackers.
Airtags are not without controversy. In December, two women filed a lawsuit against Apple alleging that their ex-partners used the small tracking devices to stalk them.