The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An airline said her luggage was in storage. Her AirTag said otherwise.

Valerie Szybala stands with her luggage only minutes after a courier dropped it off Monday near the Chase apartment building in Northeast Washington. Szybala spent four days using her Apple AirTag tracking device to hunt down her suitcase, which United Airlines claimed was in a secure storage facility. (Courtesy WUSA)
6 min

Valerie Szybala knew the United Airlines representative she was messaging through the company’s customer service portal was wrong about the location of her luggage.

The nameless representative assured her that her suitcase was at a secure storage facility and would be delivered to her soon. But Szybala had slipped an Apple AirTag tracking device inside her TravelPro suitcase, and her iPhone was telling her that it was not at such a facility. Instead, it was at an upscale apartment building in Northeast Washington called the Chase.

Unsure that United would reunite her with her bag, Szybala started an investigation. Over the next four days, the 39-year-old research analyst repeatedly returned to the Chase on Rhode Island Avenue. She schmoozed with concierges, pleaded with police and rallied local news crews to document her efforts to find the suitcase — and put pressure on United.

It worked. On Monday, as she stood outside the Chase, a third-party courier dropped off her bag, her TSA-approved lock still intact.

In a statement to The Washington Post, United Airlines said an agent contacted Szybala to confirm she got her luggage back. The airline is now investigating what it called a “service failure.” United also said the third-party vendor it used to return Szybala’s bag did “not meet our standards.”

Szybala said she’s still pushing United and D.C. police to figure out what happened and take appropriate action. Since she now has her luggage, her campaign is no longer about her directly but aimed at improving the system.

How to prevent lost luggage — and get compensation when you don’t

Szybala was in a good place at the start of Dec. 28, on her way back to Washington after vacationing abroad. But her connection out of Chicago O’Hare International Airport was tight, and even though she made the flight to Reagan National Airport, her bag did not.

So when she landed on Dec. 28, she knew she wouldn’t be going home with her suitcase. She assumed she would get it within a day or two.

As promised, her bag arrived the following day. She took United up on its offer to have the bag delivered to her house.

To track the delivery, she started looking at her “Find My” app on her phone, which was keeping tabs on the suitcase via a $29 AirTag she’d used for the first time while traveling. The bag appeared to stay at the airport all of Dec. 29. The next day, it was on the move through the D.C. suburbs, something that seemed normal. But around 6:30 p.m., the AirTag stopped moving at a shopping center on Rhode Island Avenue. There it stayed for more than an hour before popping across the street to the Chase apartment complex.

Meanwhile, Szybala was chatting online with a United customer service representative who assured her that her bag was being held at a secure storage facility and would soon be on its way to her. Suspicious, Szybala drove to the location on her “Find My” app to confirm it wasn’t a storage facility. Instead, it was a six-story apartment building.

“That’s when I knew something was wrong,” she said.

Szybala returned home and went to sleep. The next day, she watched her suitcase go back to the shopping center and then return to the Chase. She kept chatting with customer service, expressing her fears that her luggage was being stolen.

On New Year’s Day, Szybala went back to the Chase. Circling the property, she discovered several empty suitcases that had been thrown away behind the building; one was tagged with the baggage tracking sticker that had been slapped on by an airline employee.

“That’s when I got really concerned,” Szybala said.

The representative’s response: Relax.

“That’s when they gaslit me,” she said. “ … The rep told me to calm down and they’ll deliver my bag; they have it safely in the distribution center. And I knew that wasn’t true because of my AirTag.”

Szybala said it was obvious United wasn’t going to help her, so she decided to take a more aggressive tack. She posted to Twitter about her experience.

“I’d just like everyone to know that @united has lost track of my bag and is lying about it,” she wrote in a tweet that has since been viewed more than 23 million times.

When she woke the next morning, several local news stations had requested interviews. A resident at the Chase, having recognized the back of her building in the Twitter photos, also contacted her. The woman told Szybala that she was happy to escort her around the building.

All the while, Szybala was tracking her suitcase. On Monday morning, it was in Bowie, Md., lifting Szybala’s hopes that it was out for delivery. Then, back to square one as it returned to the shopping center near the Chase and then to the apartment building itself. Frustration returned.

Szybala made yet another trip to the building, meeting the resident who offered to help and a news crew from WTTG. Everyone went into the apartment building’s parking garage. A crew from WUSA showed up later as Szybala and her entourage roved about, using her iPhone to try to home in on the AirTag. Although they got a signal at one point, it quickly faded.

Then, a call from an unknown number. It was the courier. He told her he had her luggage and could drop it off at the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater nearby.

A few minutes later, as the news crews filmed, he drove up in his Honda, pulled Szybala’s suitcase out of his trunk and gave it to her. The courier claimed to have had the wrong address and said her bag had accidentally been taken to Virginia.

“I know that’s not true because of the AirTag,” she said.

Still, she was happy to get her luggage back with everything inside.

Szybala said she’s spoken with a United executive twice since getting her luggage. The executive apologized and offered her 10,000 miles for her trouble, a gesture she described as “pretty stingy” given what she had to go through. And even after those conversations, Szybala said she doesn’t have faith in United, although she said she will fly with them in the future. She’s confident the “failure point” lies not with the airline, but the third-party courier service.

But, she added, she’ll think twice about checking her luggage. That being said, sometimes you have to, like when you fly halfway around the world for a month. In those situations, Szybala said she’ll make sure she once again slips an AirTag inside her suitcase before handing it over to the airline.