The airline said her bag was lost, but her tracker said otherwise. So she flew to get it | CNN (2023)

The airline said her bag was lost, but her tracker said otherwise. So she flew to get it | CNN (1)

Sandra Shuster flew to Chicago to pick up her daughter Ruby's lost bag.

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Tales of airline passengers tracking their own lost bags are becoming ever more popular, as numbers of suitcases mishandled by airlines continue to spiral, and travelers invest in tracking devices.

But a passenger flying back to the airport where the tracker is showing, to collect it themselves when all official avenues fail? That’s a new one.

Sandra Shuster, from Denver, took matters into her own hands when her lost bag was showing as being at Chicago O’Hare airport – but her airline, United, was doing nothing about it.

Shuster and her 15-year-old daughter Ruby, who plays lacrosse, were flying back from Baltimore via Chicago on July 17, when their checked bag went missing.

The pair – who’d been to Baltimore for a tournament – had traveled with carry-on bags for their clothes, but had checked one bag containing Ruby’s lacrosse kit. When they arrived at Denver after midnight, the bag wasn’t on the belt. United representatives at Denver gave them a case number and told them the bag should arrive on the 8.30 a.m. flight from Chicago in just a few hours. When it didn’t, Shuster called the toll-free number for lost baggage that she’d been given.

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“They said, ‘Your bag’s going to come in later today on one of two flights.’ I said ‘OK, great,’ but it never came. So I called later that afternoon and they said ‘Your bag is still in Baltimore,’” says Shuster.

There was just one problem: she already knew it wasn’t in Baltimore. Three months earlier, Shuster had bought an AirTag – Apple’s tracking devices – to know where her daughter’s bag was. “This is unique equipment, and we have to check it. Airlines are getting worse, rates of lost luggage are getting higher, and I wanted to know where it was – so I bought the tag,” she explains.

And the AirTag was showing as being at baggage reclaim at O’Hare.

“I told them I could see it at Terminal 1 baggage reclaim in Chicago, and they said ‘We have no record of it.’ I asked them to call Chicago, and they said ‘No, we’re not allowed.’ They said they’d put notes in the system and the baggage team would take care of it.”

When the bag still didn’t arrive, and Shuster called a third time, she was told “We have no idea where it is.”

They also told Shuster that she had the wrong claim number – impossible, she thought, because she still had the sticker that had been attached to her boarding pass. The other half was on the bag.

In fact, they were right – sort of. The claim number was indeed the same as the tag that had been attached to her bag – but the check-in agent had attached the wrong tag. This one was for another passenger, who was traveling from Baltimore to Chicago only. That meant the bag had been taken off the plane at O’Hare and sent straight to the reclaim belt, instead of being loaded onto the Denver flight.

Turning down a ‘double win’

The airline said her bag was lost, but her tracker said otherwise. So she flew to get it | CNN (2)

Shuster's daughter Ruby plays lacrosse, and the bag was full of her equipment.

Ruby plays goal in lacrosse, which meant there was kit totaling about $2,000 in that bag. Replacing it wasn’t just about the finances, says Shuster – a new stick needs to be restrung and then broken in, needing about a month in total. Meanwhile they were flying to San Francisco for another tournament in two days’ time. Ruby borrowed some kit for that trip.

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Returning from California, they stopped at the lost luggage desk in Denver with their reference number, and reiterated that the AirTag was still tracking at Chicago.

“The guy said, ‘Mam, just because it’s at Chicago doesn’t mean it’s with your bag,’” says Shuster.

After suggesting someone had stolen the bag and dumped the AirTag, she says, the United representative told her that most people immediately put in claims to replace items, get $1,000-2,000 in compensation, and then have their bag arrive in a few weeks.

But Shuster was convinced it was still there. “It had moved maybe 50 feet, and the AirTag was embedded in the bag – I doubted someone stole it,” she says. “He was implying it could be a double win but I wasn’t trying to game the system – to replace what was in that bag was much harder.”

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What’s more, her daughter had try-outs for the lacrosse team coming up the following week.

So when she asked a Chicago friend if there was any way he could swing by the airport, and realized he was on vacation himself, Shuster took matters into her own hands and booked a flight with air miles.

A day off work and a trip to Chicago

The airline said her bag was lost, but her tracker said otherwise. So she flew to get it | CNN (3)

The bag was at Chicago, in exactly the place the AirTag had said it was.

By this time, she’d made contact with United’s Twitter team, but been told they couldn’t locate it. She also says she called United three times, to be told first that they weren’t allowed to call through to the Chicago baggage office, then that a supervisor had authorized a call but nobody in Chicago was picking up – and finally, again, that calling Chicago was simply not allowed.

Before booking her flights – two hours each way, plus 30,000 air miles and around $30 in taxes – she told United’s Twitter account that she was planning the Chicago trip.

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“We’ve let our baggage team in ORD know that you’ll be arriving,” they initially replied – before half an hour later messaging again to say, “We recommend that you remain in Denver while we continue to work through our processes to bring your bag back to you.”

Found in 30 seconds

The airline said her bag was lost, but her tracker said otherwise. So she flew to get it | CNN (4)

Staff at Chicago produced the bag in "30 seconds," says Shuster.

By that point, Shuster didn’t trust much in United’s processes. “So I jumped on the plane, flew to Chicago, got to baggage claim, and it took them 30 seconds to give me my bag,” she says.

“Meanwhile I’d already sent pictures of the bag, the claim ticket and its location to United. It’s gobsmacking that they can’t figure out how to do it better in this day and age.”

Staff were holding it at O’Hare in the baggage office by the belts at Terminal 1 – explaining the 50 feet that the AirTag showed the bag had moved.

Tagged with another passenger’s details, the bag had been sent to the belt, ready for pick up at O’Hare – and when nobody claimed it, staff had moved it to their back office.

Although multiple United staff had told Shuster that they’d updated the notes about her case, logging where the AirTag was pinging, and although their Twitter team had said they’d advise Chicago of her arrival, staff on the ground knew nothing about her case.

“They said, ‘We can’t believe that happened,’” she says.

“I understand outsourcing, but there are real inefficiencies here. And if someone knows where the bag is….” says Shuster, baffled that nobody realized that the passenger was actually saving them time and effort.

‘We never heard of that’

The airline said her bag was lost, but her tracker said otherwise. So she flew to get it | CNN (5)

While United staff said the bag was in Baltimore, the AirTag showed its correct location: Chicago.

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Since then, Shuster – who took a day off work to get the bag back, leaving on a 6 a.m. flight and getting home by 4 p.m. after the return flight was delayed – has been working on getting her miles refunded.

On arrival she spoke to the baggage team at Denver. “They said, ‘Wow, we never heard of that,’” she says.

They suggested she call United. As a frequent flyer, she called the priority line – and was told to submit an online claim. Three days on, she’d heard nothing – but less than 24 hours after CNN contacted United, the airline deposited her 30,000 miles back in her account (though not the taxes that she’d spent), along with an apology “for the inconvenience you experienced on your recent trip with United.”

United said in a statement: “Unfortunately, this bag was incorrectly tagged at the start of the trip which contributed to the longer delay – we’ve apologized to Ms. Shuster, reimbursed the miles used and gave her an additional travel credit to use toward a future flight. Our teams work to reconnect our customers with their baggage as quickly as possible and we regret that we could not get this bag to Denver sooner.”

Shuster had not yet been informed about the travel credit at the time of writing.

This woman left her AirPods on a plane. She tracked them to an airport worker's home

‘Airlines need to do better’

So what lessons have been learned? Shuster says she’ll always check the claim ticket that’s placed on her bag, instead of assuming that check-in staff have got it right. She’ll also watch it down the conveyor belt.

Ruby is happy, and Shuster says that she herself feels “wonderful – I’ve always been known for persistence.”

But her main emotion is bafflement.

“What was difficult to comprehend was that it would have taken one call to Chicago to locate it, and nobody seemed able to do that. Why couldn’t the guy at baggage claim in Denver call Chicago? It would have taken one minute. It was a huge hassle for me to take the day off work and use my miles [to fly there].

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“And there was no apology at any point – apart from a Twitter message saying ‘we know this has been frustrating and making you anxious.’

“United seems to be very siloed. They don’t have a way where these people can talked to each other and figure it out quickly.

“You can’t tell me in this day and age, with all the technology available, that they can’t figure this stuff out. Airlines need to do better.”


How do I write a complaint letter about lost luggage? ›

Dear Sir, Madam, On <date> I flew with <name of airline> from <place of departure> to <place of arrival>. This concerned flight <enter the flight number that is on your ticket>. Upon arrival at my destination, my baggage was missing.

How do airlines track lost baggage? ›

WorldTracer is an international baggage location system used in 2,000 airports and by 360 companies. It enables airlines to locate lost baggage by tracing an electronic tag that is placed on your luggage when checked in.

Is the airline responsible if they lose your bag? ›

Once an airline determines that your bag is lost, the airline is responsible for compensating you for your bags' contents - subject to depreciation and maximum liability limits.

How long does it take airlines to find lost baggage? ›

Bags that are missing are tracked using the World Tracer system. Usually, they appear somewhere within a day or two and go on to be reunited with their owners. With most airlines, passengers qualify for compensation after their bags are lost for more than 24 hours to cover necessary expenses.

How do I write a formal complaint letter to an airline? ›

Include all relevant information
  1. Your full contact details – including address, email and phone number.
  2. Full details of all passengers – including names and addresses.
  3. Your booking reference and travel dates.
  4. The flight number, departure and destination airports.
  5. Details of where the disruption occurred.

How do you write a good complaint letter to an airline? ›

Remember you are sending this letter in the hopes that the airline will take action to resolve your complaint. Refrain from using antagonistic language in your complaint letter. State what happened with your flight and what you would like the airline to do to remedy the issues you experienced.

Can I sue airline for lost luggage? ›

Airlines must pay you when they lose your luggage. However, airlines do not always offer a fair price for losing your baggage or ruining your vacation. Some airlines might deny your claim because of a technical error or if they are suspicious of your claim. You can sue an airline for lost luggage.

How much compensation do you get for lost luggage? ›

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, you are entitled to compensation for reasonable incidental expenses you incur because of your delayed baggage, up to the maximum liability limits, set by statute. For U.S. domestic flights, this is $3,800 per passenger.

How much do airlines compensate for lost luggage? ›

For domestic flights, the maximum liability amount is $3,800, according to DOT regulations, while it's around $1,780 for international flights. Airlines may decide to reimburse you for more than this, but they aren't required to do so.

Do airlines actually look for lost items? ›

Lost items on an aircraft

So long as you have a boarding pass and know your seat number, an airline should be able to track your belongings. Or else, if a trusty member of the service team catches the items, they can report it to the airline.

What airline loses the most luggage? ›

When it came to airlines that lost the most baggage, that same study found that Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines came in ninth out of 17 major airlines. “Of all national airlines, American Airlines lost the most bags in 2022, losing 850 bags per 100,000.

Who pays if airline loses luggage? ›

You're entitled to lost luggage compensation from the airline and travel insurance can cover you too. Lost luggage is a huge inconvenience to any trip but there are a few steps you can take to make the process less frustrating – some of which the airlines don't always tell you about.

Do airports deliver lost luggage? ›

FAQs on Airport Lost Luggage Delivery Services

Lost luggage can be delivered by contacting the airline or a lost luggage courier service. The process usually involves providing information about the bags, such as their description, tracking number, and delivery address.

Is lost luggage still a problem? ›

That mishandled luggage rate soared to 7.6 bags per 1,000 passengers in 2022, up from 4.35 in 2021 and 5.6 in 2019, according to the aviation data company SITA's annual insights report.

How much compensation do you get for a lost suitcase? ›

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, you are entitled to compensation for reasonable incidental expenses you incur because of your delayed baggage, up to the maximum liability limits, set by statute. For U.S. domestic flights, this is $3,800 per passenger.

Do you get compensation for a lost suitcase? ›

If luggage is delayed, passengers should file a claim with the airline. Passengers are entitled to reimbursement for essential items. If luggage is lost, passengers may be entitled to compensation. Time limits apply for making claims for delayed or lost luggage.

Do you receive compensation for lost luggage? ›

Include the receipts and documents for both your replacement items and the contents of your luggage. The average compensation from an airline for checked luggage that is either lost or damaged is $1,525 – $3,500, under U.S. and Montreal Convention air passenger rights laws.

What is the compensation for lost luggage in airport? ›

You get a compensation of ₹19,000 for domestic and ₹66,000 for international travel if your baggage is declared lost or is not returned within 96 hrs from the time your flight lands.


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