On Thursday 28 December, Valerie Szybala arrived in Washington, DC after transferring flights in Chicago, Illinois through United Airlines. Upon landing, she was informed through the United app that her bag had been delayed. The app said her luggage would arrive in DC on Friday and gave her the option to have her belongings delivered.
“I said OK, and that was a big mistake,” she told The Independent. “The third-party company that they contracted with took my bag on quite a ride and I could tell because of the AirTag I had.”
It all began when Szybala tweeted on Sunday in a now-viral Twitter thread that United Airlines had lost her luggage. She used AirTags to track down her suitcase’s bizarre location outside a residential complex, and discovered that her luggage wasn’t the only one being randomly stored at the apartment complex. Outside, she found others tossed by the dumpster and emptied.
Despite telling United’s customer support that her luggage was missing, she was told to “calm down” and that her bag was “safe” at the delivery services distribution center.
Unsurprisingly, that was not the case.
“I’d just like everyone to know that @united has lost track of my bag and is lying about it,” she began the viral Twitter thread, which now has 125k likes and 15.3m views.
“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,” she wrote. Along with the tweet, Szybala included a picture of other suitcases strewn about the concrete complex.
On Friday evening, Szybala noticed that her luggage was located in the parking lot of a suburban shopping center for an hour, before moving across the street to an apartment complex where it stayed for almost three days.
“I actually went over to investigate that night to see if this was really, as I thought it was, a residential apartment building. And it was,” Szybala said. While Szybala couldn’t get a signal from her AirTag, she did confirm that this was definitely not a distribution center like United had said.
The next day, Szybala’s suitcase was still at the apartment complex and she went back again to search for her bag. Although she didn’t find anything on Saturday, Szybala returned on Sunday to find two empty suitcases sitting by the dumpster.
“I walked around the back of the complex and I found two other empty bags,” she explained. “They looked clean. They didn’t look like there were bags you would throw out.”
It was then that she was chatting with a United Airlines customer service representative and told them what she saw. In the screenshots of her conversation from the support chat, Szybala wrote: “The Apple AirTag tracker that I have in my luggage indicates that it has been sitting in this residential apartment complex for several days.”
Szybala informed the customer service representative that there were “empty United customer bags out by the dumpsters” and asked why her luggage was taken to this location.
After not receiving a response, Szybala asked if the representative was still there, to which they replied: “Calm down you [sic] bag is at the delivery service. We will deliver the bag to you, don’t worry.”
Perhaps it was the response from the United customer service representative that enraged Twitter users the most, as many people pointed out the audacity in telling Szybala to “calm down”.
“The ‘calm down’ would have had me seeing red,” replied one Twitter user.
“This is wild,” said someone else, before mentioning how they saw “rows and rows and rows” of luggage at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. “A total mess”.
Another person said: “That condescending ‘calm down’ would have had me acting an absolute fool in the DMs.”
Even Szybala was stunned by the response from the United customer service representative. “I told them what I saw and they totally just gaslit at me,” she told The Independent. “It was obvious they were lying. That wasn’t true because this tracking device was telling me my bag was inside the building and I saw two empty bags outside.”
After filing a police report about the missing luggage, Szybala decided to post about it on Twitter.
A few hours after posting her initial tweet, Szybala informed her followers that her AirTag appeared to be on the move and stopped at a McDonald’s restaurant, only to return to the same apartment complex where it’s been “held hostage” for the past two days.
It wasn’t until Monday that Szybala was finally reunited with her bag. “I realised, ‘Oh, it has to be in the trunk of a car. It’s going on these trips,’” she said. “I was looking in the wrong place, I needed to get into the garage.”
Szybala tracked her bag through AirTag once more, following its trip from the suburbs, to the shopping center, and back to the apartment complex. “I decided, this is my chance. I’m going to get it. It’s in the garage,” she said. “And that is what I did.”
Along with a crew from two local news stations, Szybala also received help from a resident of the apartment building who had been following her Twitter thread. “They helped us navigate the garage, because you need to swipe through, and we got a faint signal using the iPhone for the bag,” Szybala recalled.
But when she stepped out of the garage and regained cell service, she received a “sketchy” text message from a delivery service courier, who she said was named Milton.
Taking to the popular Twitter thread, Szybala shared a screenshot of the text message, which said: “I’m delivering the luggage missing from your flight with AA/UA. I want to apologise for the inconvenience that you’ve had with your bag. Imma deliver it to you today.”
The courier explained that “the bag was given to me under a different passenger and I delivered your [sic] in a different address and had to go back to that place and pick it up.”
However, Milton’s message didn’t match with what Szybala’s AirTag tracking had shown. “It didn’t make any sense. It still doesn’t,” she said. So, she decided to call Milton. When he picked up the phone, he told Szybala that he was just around the corner and drove back to meet her near the apartment complex where she received her bag.
Despite her luggage now being home safe and sound, Szybala was left with many confused questions and not a lot of answers. “I still feel like something pretty untoward was happening at this address,” she said. Szybala suggested that, with the chaos of the holiday season, the backlogs of missing luggage makes it easy to steal someone else’s suitcase.
“I think that makes the most sense, that there was no intention to return my bag to me,” she said.
Szybala also revealed that the two empty bags which she found outside the apartment complex by the dumpster were gone by later on Monday. A building resident told Szybala that the suitcases weren’t picked up by trash collection, but rather brought back inside by someone in the building, which “adds to the sketchy factor for sure,” she tweeted.
The past three days were a wild journey for Szybala’s once-missing luggage, so she concluded her viral Twitter thread by sharing some of the lessons she learned ever since United Airlines lost her bag.
Among the three lessons learned was that using a tracking device in your luggage “can be a lifesaver,” travellers should take photos or inventory of their belongings in case they need to file a reimbursement claim, and to “never choose delivery” over the pickup option if their bag arrives on a later flight.
United Airlines has yet to publicly comment on the case of the missing luggage, beyond Szybala’s initial interaction with United’s customer support chat. In a statement to The Independent, United Airlines said: “We are working with our baggage delivery vendor to understand the details of this situation.”
Despite being offered some miles by United Airlines, Szybala was told the company has launched an investigation into the mysterious apartment complex saga but has received no information since.
“It’s really for United, at this point, to hold their subcontractors accountable – giving it to a service and trusting them to deliver people’s bags when one of the most frequent horror stories people shared in the responses was, my bag got delivered to a different address,” Szybala said.
“For me, it’s a happy story. But I feel really bad for people because everyone’s going through something like this right now, or tons of people are. It’s really upsetting and not everyone’s going to be able to go viral and get their bag back.”
This article was originally published on 2 January 2023.