Valerie Szybala thought she made the right decision when she accepted United Airlines’ offer to deliver her delayed baggage.
This was in the last week of 2022, when bad weather and operational failures canceled thousands of flights, most of them on Southwest Airlines. Szybala had just landed at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC, when the United app notified her that the bag was missing from her flight from Chicago. It seemed easier to let the airline take the bag, filled with souvenirs from an extended vacation, directly to his house.
After all, he had put an Apple AirTag in his luggage, allowing him to track the bag’s journey. But Szybala could not have imagined what came next.
“That’s where the real chaos started,” Szybala told Mashable.
When the tagged suitcase left the airport on December 29, Szybala says, it appeared to be on its way to delivery just a few miles away. AirTags are designed to track personal items, such as wallets and car keys, by sending signals that can be detected by Apple’s Find My network. (Privacy experts have criticized the device’s ability to track people without their consent, including victims of domestic violence.)
Szybala’s bag never arrived on the 29th. She continued to see it the next day, and it appeared to be settling in for the night in a residential apartment complex.
It was then that she began to worry.
Since the Find My network provided her with the location of the bag, Szybala decided to go there herself. This is how a viral started Twitter thread about the series As of this writing, the first tweet in that thread had been viewed 15.5 million times.
Szybala’s experience is a cautionary tale about relying on airlines and their third-party courier services to return delayed or lost luggage, and why a tracking device could be the leverage travelers need to hold big corporations accountable for their misdeeds. practices.
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When Szybala arrived at the apartment complex, she saw and photographed empty suitcases near a dumpster. Panic seized him. A text chat with a United customer service representative, via the carrier’s app, left Szybala feeling “turned on.”
A exchange screenshot shows Szybala begging the representative to clarify why her AirTag indicated the bag was in an apartment complex, not a secure distribution center, as the representative insisted. The representative, whom Szybala was unable to confirm that he was human, replied: “Calm down, your bag is in the delivery service.”
“When I thought there was someone stealing bags and maybe emptying them, that’s when I thought, ‘I need to take action,'” he said.
Szybala kept going back to the compound hoping to find her bag, with no luck. At one point, he saw the bag traveling to a McDonald’s.
“ANOTHER IMPORTANT UPDATE: My AirTag luggage has left McDonalds and returned to the apartment complex where it is being held hostage!” Szybala wrote on Twitter.
As his tweets circulated, Szybala received direct messages from people with similar horror stories and insider information about how luggage is supposed to be handled. Several pointed her out to a Houston-based company, Wheres My Suitcase (sic), used by multiple airlines. Her Yelp page of hers is covered in bad reviews.
United told Szybala it could track her bag at wheresmysuitcase.com, but the website never updated the location of her belongings. He had no way of contacting the courier directly.
Szybala also says she was told by an industry insider that the standard procedure is to return luggage to the distribution center if it cannot be delivered. It is still unknown what the suitcase in question was doing in an apartment building.
On her fourth trip to the compound, Szybala received a text from the courier service. The delivery man said that he had delivered the bag to the wrong person in Virginia and that he had to get it back. Given AirTag’s details, Szybala doesn’t believe that story, but he did recover his bag on January 2, three days after he went missing.
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“It doesn’t seem right to me,” he said.
When Mashable asked United Airlines for comment on the situation, the airline said in an email: “We are working with our baggage delivery provider to understand the details of this situation.”
United Airlines sent a further update following the publication of this story: “We have contacted this customer to discuss this situation and confirm that they received their baggage. The service provided by our baggage delivery provider does not meet our standards and We are investigating what happened to lead to this service failure.”
Szybala wrote on Twitter that travelers should consider using a tracking device in their luggage. Without him, and without the viral Twitter thread, Szybala said he probably wouldn’t have his bag.
In fact, the nightmare of vacation travel seems to have convinced other travelers to do the same. Scott Budman of NBC News reported on monday that Apple AirTags have become a best-selling item on Amazon in recent days.
Szybala also recommended that travelers photograph or inventory their belongings before they fly, and opt to pick up delayed or lost bags at the airport rather than have them delivered. Still, she believes United ultimately bears responsibility for what happens to travelers’ baggage and how the company treats travelers when that happens.
“Obviously this is not going to change everything that United does, but certainly getting all this attention, the negative press, is the only thing that might prompt them to look at some of these practices,” Szybala said.
UPDATE: Jan 2, 2023 3:55pm PST This story has been updated with a new statement from United Airlines.
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