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The airline lost his bags. He crossed the Atlantic to find them

His trip to the airport took four hours -- three waiting in line and an hour searching.
Aleandro Biagianti/AGF/Shutterstock
His trip to the airport took four hours -- three waiting in line and an hour searching.

By Julia Buckley, CNN

(CNN) — Business, leisure… or on a quest to find your lost luggage? With summer travel chaos at its height, few people would actively choose to take a flight that wasn’t for work or vacation. But on the busy Fourth of July holiday weekend, Brett Bunce made a flying visit from the US to Italy to track down three bags that his airline had lost weeks earlier.

The airline: British Airways. The bags: those of Bunce, his wife Gwyn and daughter Carolina, which they’d packed to take on their trip of a lifetime to the Bel Paese on June 15.

His destination: Florence, cradle of the Renaissance and now the birthplace of their baggage woes. Because in one of those bags were some heirlooms that the family was desperate to get back.

According to the airline, their bags were still nowhere to be found, after nearly three weeks. So when Bunce was contacted by a “good Samaritan” stranger saying she’d noticed their bags in a pile of lost luggage in Florence, he decided to fly in and look for them himself. From Miami.

The good news: he found them. But it was mission almost impossible to do so.

Along with his wife and daughter, Bunce had booked an eight-day trip to Italy, flying from Miami to Florence via London Heathrow on British Airways, then heading south to Rome and Naples, before flying back from there to Heathrow and then Miami.

Flying over, they had a 90-minute layover in London, which should have been enough – British Airways recommends an hour between flights.

But when they arrived in Florence, their bags were not on the carousel.

Plenty of travelers these days are packing tracking devices into their bags, meaning that they can see where their “lost” bags are when airlines drop the ball. That’s how, only last month, Sandra Shuster was able to fly from Denver to Chicago to collect her daughter’s bag, which United Airlines had lost at Baltimore.

The Bunce family hadn’t used trackers. They were relying on the airline taking their bags from their departure point to their arrival point. Which meant that on arrival at Florence, when the staff at the lost luggage desk said they didn’t know where the bags were, they weren’t any the wiser.

Staff logged the loss and gave them case reference numbers for each of the lost bags – though Bunce says that they didn’t explain that the airline could reimburse them for purchases made to cover their missing items. Instead, the family called their travel insurance, which explained the procedure, telling them to keep receipts for anything they bought.

Each day, buying clothes and toiletries when needed, the family logged into British Airways’ lost luggage system to see where their bags were. Each day, they saw the same message: “Status: searching for your bag. As soon as we locate this bag we will notify you to let you know where it is.”

The notification never came.

Before they moved on to Rome, they updated the delivery details for their cases. When they traveled on to Naples, they did the same. Kind hotel concierges were also trying to call the lost luggage team at Florence airport to no avail, and Bunce says that despite daily calls to BA’s lost luggage helpline, long waits and automated messages meant he never managed to get through to a human.

“We went through the process they described: file the claim, notify them the bags were lost. We kept thinking they would catch up with us – or at least tell us where the bags were,” he says. Instead, there was silence for their whole trip.

A chance tip-off

Or, rather, there was silence from British Airways and its Italian contracted couriers.

A few days before their return to the US, Bunce got an email from a stranger: Anne Johnson, from Colorado. Searching for her own lost bags in Florence airport, she had seen theirs and, after noting details on the tags, wanted Bunce to know they were there.

The British Airways system still told them that the bags had not been traced, but now they had a lead. There was just one problem – they were flying back to Miami in a couple of days. Initially, Bunce also thought that Johnson’s email could be some kind of scam.

They flew back, but kept thinking about the bags.

“It had been almost two weeks, and we thought the longer they sit there the more chance there is that they decide someone isn’t coming for them,” said Bunce.

“We started tallying up how much it would cost to replace the items.”

The bag contents were mostly replaceable – clothes and shoes. But then 14 year old Carolina mentioned something that changed everything. She’d quietly packed some of her grandmother’s jewelry into her bag for her trip of a lifetime – all the better for the photos she was planning to take. It was, of course, irreplaceable.

“Once I heard that, I thought, I have to go back, it’s the only way,” says Bunce.

“I had to go and try to talk my way in, see if they’d let me look for it.”

Mission: Difficult

Bunce booked flights for the Fourth of July weekend, so that he had one less day of work to take off – though the peak travel dates made his fare exorbitantly expensive, at $4,000 return for a seat with extra legroom.

“It was a tremendous amount and a risk – we didn’t know the bags were there. But we started tallying up the numbers and thought, if the risk pays off, it’ll be well worth it,” he says. “Of course, if it didn’t, we’d have been putting a lot more down.”

Keen to avoid another BA experience, on the Saturday he flew American Airlines direct from Miami to Rome overnight, taking the train north to Florence. After 36 hours of travel, he arrived at Florence Peretola Airport at 3 p.m. on the Sunday afternoon. He’d booked his return for the Tuesday. The countdown to find the bags was on.

“They sent me down to an empty hallway to a booth marked ‘lost and found’ – it was the back side of the baggage claim,” he says. “There were about 20 people standing in line ahead of me, about 12 Americans. Someone was attending a wedding and their bag had been lost.”

With just one member of staff on duty, it took three hours for Bunce to make it to the front of the line.

When his time came, the staff checked the system but said the bags hadn’t been located. Since Bunce was adamant that it had been seen in a hangar, they suggested he could go look for it himself.

“They wrote out something on a piece of paper, like a hall pass you’d get in school, and told me to walk outside, round the back of the airport to a service entrance.

“I waited there 45 minutes before someone let me in. Then I went through a metal detector, and suddenly I was round the back of the airport baggage claim area,” he says.

“Inside that was the baggage claim office. There was a bay overflowing with suitcases – they were piled up everywhere.”

He combed through the bags, but couldn’t find this. He made a second lap, and then a third. “I was getting increasingly anxious because I thought, this is it – and then on the third pass, I found my wife’s bag and my daughter’s bag, which was the most important.”

The bag with grandma’s jewelry was found. But since he’d flown nearly 5,500 miles to find them, he wanted to find his, too.

And so the odyssey continued.

The final leg

Bunce was given a hi-vis safety vest to wear, and staff escorted him and a group of other luggage hunters out onto the airport apron, towards what he describes as a “mini hangar” filled with suitcases. Within it, there were also several baggage “trains” used to load suitcases into airplane holds, loaded with cases, he says.

And when he still couldn’t find his third bag, he was taken to a final hangar with even more cases – up to 1,000, he estimates. Mission accomplished – this time, the third and final bag was in there, waiting for him. Even better, none of the bags had been opened – all their belongings were inside. It had taken 17 days, one transatlantic flight and zero communications from British Airways – but they had their bags.

Of the other four people in the group with Bunce, three found their bags too. They were never lost – they’d just been stored instead of sending to passengers. Bunce estimates that over the course of that hour-long search – four hours in the airport overall – he saw around 2,000 unclaimed bags.

“I’m convinced that if I hadn’t gone to the airport, we’d never have seen those bags again,” he says.

Still searching

A British Airways spokesperson confirmed the bags were never loaded onto the Bunce family’s original flight to Florence, telling CNN: “We’re sorry for the inconvenience caused by the delay to the customer’s baggage, which was flown to Florence the next day and passed to a courier for delivery.

“Despite best efforts, the courier was not able to deliver the bags due to the customer’s change of delivery address, and the bags were returned to their sorting office where they were due to be processed and sent on to the new location or returned to their home address.”

Yet when Bunce logs into the baggage claim website, he gets the same message that’s been showing since June 16: “Status: Searching for your bag. As soon as we locate this bag we will notify you to let you know where it is.”

And he insists that when he arrived at Florence, airport staff said they had no idea where his bags were – there was no talk of them being handed over to a courier. If the bags were on the system, staff would surely have known where they were.

Screenshots also show that Bunce updated the BA baggage website with his addresses and dates they would be in each city, as they moved through their vacation. The information was not acted upon.

“It seemed normal – [staff] were taking it in their stride like they’d been dealing with this for a while,” he says of his tour of the bag hangars.

‘We spent the trip dishevelled’

Of course, he then had three bags to get back to Miami. Bunce tried various FedEx premises in Florence, but was told they could only ship boxes. So he loaded all three onto a return train to Rome, dragged them across cobblestones for around a mile to his overnight hotel, and finally got a taxi to Fiumicino airport the next day.

There he flew direct to Miami where his thrilled family were waiting.

The family are now waiting on their travel insurance to refund them for the supplies and clothes they bought during their vacation. Not Bunce’s flight, however, which they always knew would not be refunded.

Predictably, Bunce, a frequent business traveler, has sworn off flying British Airways – not because they lost the family’s bags, but because of the lack of communication.

“I understand bags get lost, but the way they handled it is so frustrating to me,” he says.

“My story had a happy ending, but it still added thousands of dollars to the cost of our trip.

“For many Americans like us, Italy isn’t a trip you make often – it’s a once or twice in a lifetime experience. So when you have to spend so much of the trip feeling dishevelled when you’re not in your own clothes, and you’re scrounging for a toothbrush, it really compromises the whole experience.”

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