Woman retrieves her United luggage via Apple AirTag after 3 days

Valerie Szybala thought she made the right choice when she accepted United Airlines’ offer to deliver her delayed luggage.

That was in the last week of 2022, when bad weather and operational failures canceled thousands of flights, mostly on Southwest Airlines. Shibala had just landed at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., when the United app notified her that the bag was missing from her flight from Chicago. It seemed easier to let the airline bring a bag full of souvenirs from a long vacation straight to his house.

After all, he put an Apple AirTag on his luggage, allowing him to track the bag’s journey. But Shibala could not imagine what would happen next.

“That’s where the real chaos started,” Szybala told Mashable.

Szybala says when the labeled bag left the airport on Dec. 29, it appeared to be on its way to delivery several miles away. AirTags are designed to track personal items like 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, including victims of domestic violence, without their consent.)

Shibala’s bag did not arrive on the 29th. The next day, he continued to watch it, and it appeared that he was stationed at the apartment complex in the evening.

That’s when he started to worry.

Shibala decided to go there himself, as the “Find Me” network told him the location of the bag. Thus began a viral Twitter thread on the saga. At the time of writing, the first tweet on the subject 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 may be the tool travelers need to hold large corporations accountable for their practices.

When Shibala arrived at the apartment complex, he saw empty suitcases near the trash can and took pictures of them. Panic ensued. A text conversation with a United customer service representative through the carrier’s app left Szybala feeling “queasy.”

A screenshot of the exchange It shows Shibala pleading with the representative why the AirTag showed the bag was at an apartment complex and not at a secure distribution center as the representative insisted. “Relax, the bag is on delivery,” replied the representative, who could not confirm that Shibala was human.

“When I thought someone was stealing the bags and maybe emptying them, I said, ‘I have to take action,'” she said.

Shibala kept returning to the compound hoping to find her bag, but no luck. At one point, he watched the bag go to McDonalds.

“A BIG UPDATE: My luggage has left the AirTag McDonalds and is back at the apartment complex where it was held!” Shibala wrote on Twitter.

As her tweets spread, Szybala received DMs from people with similar horror stories and inside information on how to handle luggage. Several pointed him to a Houston-based company, Wheres My Suitcase (sic), which is used by many airlines. His Yelp page is covered in bad reviews.

United told Szybalaya she could track her bag on wheresmysuitcase.com, but the website never updated the location of her belongings. He did not have the option of contacting the courier service directly.

Szybala also says that an industry insider told him that standard procedure is to return baggage to the distribution center if it is not delivered. It is not yet known what the said suitcase was doing in the residential building.

On his fourth visit to the complex, Shibala received a text from the courier service. The delivery person said they delivered the bag to the wrong person in Virginia and needed to take it back. Given the AirTag details, Szybala doesn’t believe the story – but she got her bag back on January 2, three days after it went missing.

“It doesn’t seem above me,” he said.

When Mashable asked United Airlines for comment on the situation, the carrier said in an email, “We are working with our baggage delivery vendor to understand the details of this situation.”

United Airlines sent an additional update after this story was published: “We have contacted this customer to discuss this situation and confirm receipt of their baggage. The baggage delivery vendor did not meet our service standards and we are investigating what happened to cause this service to fail.”

Shibala wrote on Twitter that travelers should consider using a tracking device in their luggage. Without it — and the viral Twitter thread — Szybala said she probably wouldn’t have her bag.

Indeed, the holiday travel nightmare seems to have convinced other fliers to do the same. NBC News’ Scott Budman reported on Monday Apple AirTags have become the best-selling product on Amazon in recent days.

Shibala also advised travelers to take a photo or inventory of their belongings before their flight, and opt to pick up delayed or lost bags at the airport instead of delivering them. Still, he believes the United States is responsible for what happens to travelers’ luggage and how the airline treats those flying when it happens.

“Obviously, it’s not going to change everything that the United States is doing, but certainly all this attention — the negative press — is the only thing that might make them appreciate some of these practices,” Szybala said.

UPDATE: January 2, 2023, 3:55 PM PST This story has been updated with a new statement from United Airlines.

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