Editor’s Note: Sign up for Unlocking the World, CNN Travel’s weekly newsletter. Get news about destinations opening, inspiration for future adventures, plus the latest in aviation, food and drink, where to stay and other travel developments.
We’ve had people tracking their bags when airlines can’t find them. Now here’s something new: a passenger tracking an item she left on a plane – to an airport employee’s home.
Earlier in March, Alisabeth Hayden, from Washington state in the US, was separated from her AirPods – Apple’s pricey micro headphones – while disembarking from a plane in San Francisco. She swiftly realized that they appeared to have been stolen.
But after nearly two weeks, she had them back – thanks to her tenacious tracking abilities.
Hayden was flying back from a trip to Tokyo to visit her husband, who is on secondment in the military, when she was parted from the earphones.
Disembarking from the plane at San Francisco International Airport – and a little disoriented after a nine-hour flight from Tokyo – she left her denim jacket on her seat, at the back of the plane.
“I realized before I was even off the plane,” she says. “I was the third from last off the plane, so I asked the flight attendant if I could go and get it. He said no – I was required by federal law to get off the plane and stand beside it, where the strollers are brought to. I was tired, he said he’d bring it to me, I said OK.”
He did indeed bring it to her – and she boarded her next flight to Seattle. “A child was screaming next to me and I thought, ‘At least I have my AirPods,’” she remembers. She reached for her jacket – she’d left the two breast pockets buttoned up, one with her earphones, one with some Japanese Yen inside it.
“The pockets were open, and my AirPods were gone,” she says.
The plane had already taken off to Seattle, but Hayden used inflight Wi-Fi to track the earphones using the “Find My” app, which tracks Apple devices. The AirPods were showing at SFO.
Then she realized they were moving.
“I’m a diligent person, and I tracked the whole way from San Francisco to Seattle, taking screenshots the entire time. I live an hour from Seattle, and once I got home, I was still taking screenshots,” she says.
The AirPods by now were showing up at a place on the map called “United Cargo” – still within the airport, but the cargo side of the airline, so not where a passenger would be likely to be.
Then they moved to Terminal 2. Then to Terminal 3. Then they were on Highway 101, heading south towards San Mateo. They ended up at what appeared to be a residential address in the Bay Area, and stayed put there for three days.
Of course, everyone’s gadgets are precious, but Hayden’s AirPods hold particular significance – they’re her link to her husband, who calls her from his deployment on such a bad line that she needs them to hear him.
From the minute she realized they were gone, Hayden was trying to get them back. She messaged United and SFO from the plane, then tried the police in San Francisco, Hayward (where the tracker was showing), and SFO’s own airport police.
She worked out the email format for United employee emails, and “blasted” every single executive she could find, across the globe. “I hit every avenue I could find, and used every possible form of communication, and got the same response: ‘I’m sorry that happened to you,’” she says.
In the meantime, she says, she marked the AirPods as “lost” on the app, so that anyone who used them would hear a message telling them that they were hers, and giving them her phone number.
United, she says, were “godawful” in their communications with her.
“First they were like, ‘I’m sorry you lost your belongings on our flight.’ I was like, ‘I didn’t lose them, I was denied the ability to get my jacket by an employee… and now my $250 AirPods are missing.’”
The person who helped? A detective from San Mateo police force, working at the airport.
He matched the address the earphones were pinging from to an address for an employee of the airport – a contractor working to load food onto aircraft.
United would later clarify to Hayden in an email that they were “not a United employee but a vendor.”
She says now: “I can’t make any assumptions, but what I know is that they were in the pocket when I got up, I wasn’t allowed back to my seat, and by the time the steward brought [the jacket] to me they weren’t there – and when I tracked them, they were at an employee’s house.”
United confirmed to CNN that the employee works for a United vendor, and said that the matter has been handed over to law enforcement.
It added in a statement: “United Airlines holds our vendors to the highest standards and we are working with local authorities in their investigation of this matter.”
Hayden says the detective told her that “the information had been given to United Cargo, and they were going to call this person into the office and question him.”
“For the next few days, I was watching my AirPods at this man’s house. They should have died, because I hadn’t charged them before my trip, but I kept getting a notification on that they had been ‘seen’ [by the app] – which meant someone had connected their iPhone to the AirPods.”
A few days later, the detective called her again to say that the employee had been questioned. He’d denied having the AirPods, until being shown the tracking screenshots at his home – at which point he said that he’d been given them by one of the airplane cleaners. That person denied all knowledge of the situation.
The matter is now being handled by the San Francisco Airport Police Department, which plans to submit the case to the San Mateo District Attorney’s office, a spokesperson for San Mateo County confirmed to CNN.
After 12 days of chasing, Hayden finally got her AirPods back – although not in peak condition. “They look like they’ve been stomped on,” she says. “They were wrapped in a toilet paper-sized piece of bubble wrap, Why bother?”
When she flagged United about their condition, she says, she was told to leave feedback through the contact form on its website. A week later, and after CNN first contacted the airline about her case, Hayden was told she would receive $271.91 in “expenses” (to buy a new pair) plus 5,000 miles as an apology.
Hayden – who always travels with an AirTag in her luggage, too – says she’d love to be the last case of alleged theft from a plane.
“I’m tenacious – but what about the people who don’t have the time, or who give up? How many people will be told, ‘You left them behind, what do you expect?’” she asks.
She calls the detective who helped her “amazing.”
In the meantime, with her AirPods recovered, she can communicate with her husband again.
“Maybe they look like AirPods to normal people, but it’s my lifeline to my husband and means something different to me,” she says.
“But I shouldn’t have to explain for someone to care.”