Opinion: Southwest lost my kid's car seat. Tracking it with an AirTag only added to the travel misery

The luggage of Southwest Airlines passengers waits to be claimed in the baggage claim area at Chicago Midway International Airport in Chicago, Illinois. On social media, Southwest customers have bemoaned the many ways checking bags has added another layer to their travel woes. — AFP

On Christmas Day this year, my family and I joined the ranks of perhaps the most unenviable of holiday travellers this season: the Southwest Airlines passenger.

When it comes to travel horror stories, ours was relatively tame. Our flight from my hometown of St Louis to California made it to a layover in Long Beach before the second leg to Oakland was cancelled. With a little wrangling and a lot of credit card use, my partner, 15-month-old daughter and I got a hotel room for the night, a one-way rental car, a new car seat and made the seven-hour trek to the Bay Area the following day.

Our luggage wasn't so lucky.

I'm still missing four suitcases, a stroller and a car seat. But my family and other passengers outfitted some of the lost items with tracking devices, offering an aggravating window into what's happening inside an opaque and maddening holiday travel meltdown.

But while tracking devices can offer their owners rich, up-to-the-second location data, a combination of airline policies, security measures and general system-wide chaos means there's not much you can do with it when it's attached to separated luggage.

Unlike postal carriers and delivery services, there is no public-facing system to track your belongings through Southwest or other major airlines. It's a technology shortcoming that has been laid bare as thousands of passengers are left waiting in hours-long luggage lines, paw through rooms full of lost baggage or attempt to contact a customer service system crushed by a deluge of exasperated passengers.

On social media, Southwest customers have bemoaned the many ways checking bags has added another layer to their travel woes. Some would-be fliers reported that the airline refused to release checked luggage back to passengers after their flights were cancelled. Others, like me, made it to at least some destination, but seemed to have orphaned their bags in the process.

Countless others reported their luggage lost altogether, or are finding solace in Reddit threads offering tips, or even turning to strangers helping to reunite passengers with their belongings.

A spokesperson for Southwest said their team is "utilising procedures for returning baggage during irregular operations," and has begun moving baggage to cargo facilities and out of airports to begin reuniting customers with their property.

"We will make every attempt to reconnect customers with their baggage at no cost to the customer — we will use shipping partners to return baggage, where appropriate," the spokesperson said.

A few months ago, I wrote about how I was able to locate, and eventually retrieve, my stolen car using personal tracking technology. I also interviewed several other San Franciscans who tracked down their own stolen property using devices like Apple AirTags or Tile trackers, but who spoke about how police policies limited their ability to get their things back — even when they could pinpoint its location down to the inch.

On Monday, my partner trudged to Oakland International Airport to file a missing luggage report. A customer service representative was able to locate our stroller, which I had checked at the gate, in Long Beach. But the five other items apparently never made it onto a plane, meaning they likely were still in Missouri.

This tracked with what the AirTag affixed to my daughter's car seat was telling us Tuesday afternoon: It was still at Lambert International Airport in St Louis.

The data offered some semblance of relief and even control in a chaotic situation. That was, until the AirTag started moving.

By Monday evening, the AirTag attached to the car seat was no longer located at the airport, but at a small, single-family home about 9 miles away. There appeared to be no warehouses nearby, or any other straightforward explanation as to why the seat would turn up here.

In all likelihood, the car seat was stolen, and we didn't have trackers on the rest of the luggage to monitor its whereabouts. There's no way to know where the other luggage is, or whether it was moved along with the car seat.

The nausea returned. While a car seat is easily replaceable, some of the other items in our luggage aren't. A vintage dollhouse my daughter got for Christmas. A piece of electronic equipment. Medication.

I tweeted to Southwest's official account and was able to contact the home's owner, who lives out of state and rents the property. In a text, the homeowner said he would contact the property manager, but as of Wednesday afternoon I hadn't heard back. Southwest's Twitter account asked that I contact them with more information via direct message, which I did.

"I wish I had more information to share regarding how to move forward," the Southwest representative replied in the DM. "Our team should be able to further investigate the situation to see if someone left with your item in error."

Isabelle Pippenger, a Denver resident who had planned to travel to Portland, Ore., on Christmas Day, said she and her family already checked their bags when their Southwest flight was cancelled. But instead of releasing the luggage back to its owners, Pippenger and others were told that the bags would still be making their way to Portland.

"We have to file a missing or damaged baggage report," Pippenger said in an interview. "So when it arrives in Portland, they'll know to send it back to (Denver International Airport) and we can come get it."

Pippenger was also tracking one of her bags with an AirTag, and watched helplessly as it stood motionless on the Denver tarmac. Three days later, Pippenger said the bag remains in limbo. It hasn't made its way to Portland, nor has it moved back into the airport.

"We've seen the movement back and forth between the C and D gates," she said. "But it hasn't even come up to where we could go look for it."

A Southwest spokesperson said it's very cumbersome to remove checked baggage from the aircraft once it's loaded, and the plane still has to move eventually, even if passengers aren't in it. The aircraft is expected to be somewhere else and those bags are expected to be in that location, too.

"It's a highly complex process that is a part of how our network works in concert — when everything is functioning correctly, of course," the spokesperson said.

Southwest on Wednesday set up an area of the website dedicated to reporting and finding missing luggage, which can be found at www.southwest.com/baginfo.

Representatives said additional information can be found at www.southwest.com/help/baggage/lost-damaged-baggage. Customers can also speak with a representative at the baggage service office in an airport where we operate or contact Southwest customer service, though representatives warned that the company is still experiencing abnormally high call volumes.

As of Wednesday evening, I have little confidence I'll ever see that car seat again, but am holding out hope for the rest of our luggage. And probably investing in a few more AirTags. – San Francisco Chronicle/Tribune News Service

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