The airline lost his bike. He tracked it across the Atlantic | CNN

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Sometimes, when you’re going through something, a little human understanding is all it takes to turn a bad situation around.

A very human – and humane – reaction from an airport staff member was enough to make the day of Luke Barnett and his son Gray.

Sixteen-year-old Gray is a cyclist – the US national time trial champion for his age group. Competing at national level for several years, and part of the EF Pro Cycling team’s junior development program, he travels regularly to races – including some in France and Belgium this summer.

And to race, you need your equipment – so Gray flew his bike over from Greenville, South Carolina, for the event.

“He’s a very independent kid – he handles a lot of the logistical stuff himself,” says his father, Luke.

“We send him on these trips and he gets to Europe by himself and meets up with coaches there.”

Gray’s last race was near Lyon, which, happily, his team won.

Less happily, what should have been a triumphant flight home – Lyon to Brussels, then Brussels back home – fell to pieces when his bike didn’t make it with him.

Luckily, Gray was one of the many people who never travel these days without a luggage tracking device – in this case an Apple AirTag. It had been his mother’s idea when he started traveling regularly for races. “A mom’s intuition,” as Barnett says.

Gray’s device showed his bike was at Brussels – where he had connected to his flight to the US.

His journey had been operated by two different, code-sharing airlines: Brussels Airlines from Lyon to Brussels, then United to the US.

But although both airlines are partners of Star Alliance, and although the ticket had been booked through United, United wasn’t helping locate his bag.

And after a few days of no leads, Gray’s dad, Luke, asked his son if he’d mind him getting involved too.

“The bike is worth $12,000 – it’s a team bike, but it’s the principle, and it was specific for him, with measurements for his riding style,” says Luke Barnett.

“Also, he needs it to train – he has an event in Vermont in a couple of weeks.”

No movement – on any front

Barnett could see the bike was at Brussels Airport, where he'd connected.

Gray had already been in contact with Brussels Airlines; his dad decided to try United.

From the moment it failed to arrive in Greenville, the bag hadn’t moved from the arrivals area at Brussels Airport, according to the AirTag.

But although he told United representatives on their baggage hotline exactly where the bag was, they couldn’t help.

“I said, ‘I expect it’s in the baggage claim room, and we just need someone from United to walk there, get it and send it to us,’” says Barnett.

“They said, ‘Well, based on our records, Brussels Airlines have the bag and need to give it to us.’ They said they’d message Brussels Airlines.

“A couple of days later I called Brussels Airlines, but they said, ‘United booked your ticket, we’re not going to talk to you.’

“So I went back to United and they just said they’d send another message to Brussels.

“I was saying, ‘I just needed someone to care enough to take 15 minutes to walk over and get the bag.’”

He tried appealing to each individual’s good nature, explaining how important the bike was to Gray, offering to send photos, and asking for callbacks.

On his third call, a United staffer asked him to send a picture of the location.

“They hadn’t done that before,” he says.

But he never heard another word.

Barnett wasn’t panicking yet – the fact that the AirTag hadn’t moved an inch in several days suggested that it was safely in some kind of baggage repository, he reckoned. But when Gray had first filed his claim, he’d received an email saying that bags are available for pickup for 10 days at the Brussels arrivals hall. There was no mention of what would happen after 10 days. The countdown was on.

Barnett tagged United in a post on Facebook, then X (formerly known as Twitter), after someone advised him that was a better option. Sure enough, the airline’s social media team messaged him back.

“It was ironic that I wasn’t getting help from the call center, but was making more headway through direct messages on Twitter,” he says.

In the meantime, he filed a complaint with United for their lack of action. He got a form response back, saying he’d receive a reply in 14 to 21 days – or eight weeks as the maximum. Considerably more than the 10 days that they were working to.

On the advice of a friend, he also filed a complaint with the US Department of Transport.

Enter Ella

Barnett is US national time trial champion for his age group and competes with the EF Pro Cycling team's junior development program.

So with the airlines (which should have been helping) not helping, Barnett tried a different tactic – asking the airport.

He filled in the contact form for Brussels Airport, telling them the situation, explaining where the bike was, and begging for help.

Initially, he got standard replies – that airlines, not airports, are responsible for passengers’ bags, and that nobody could help him.

But after he persisted with two more pleading messages, he got a different person responding: “Ella.”

“We went to the baggage reclaim for you but could not find your baggage. In the file is indicated a bike bag. Could you please describe the baggage or maybe you have a picture of it?” she wrote.

Barnett replied with the location as tracked by AirTag, and two photos of Gray with the bike bag to show her its size.

“I will go back once more at the end of my shift,” came the answer.

And then, less than an hour later:

“Dear Luke,

“Thank you for your patience. We have found your baggage. They will send it tomorrow on flight UA 2337 to Greenville via Chicago.”

Ella wasn’t joking. As soon as the email came through, Gray checked his phone. The AirTag was already in a different part of the airport.

The next day, it moved again, popped up in Chicago, disappeared again – and bleeped from Greenville at 11 p.m..

Airlines are supposed to courier lost bags direct to passengers, but they didn’t want to wait. Barnett jumped in the car and rushed to the airport, where the bag was waiting for him.

‘I just needed someone to care’

Ella Dollinschi went above and beyond to recover Barnett's bike at Brussels Airport.

So who is Ella, the mysterious star of the happy tale?

She’s Ella Dollinschi, a customer care agent at Brussels Airport.

“I made sure to help this passenger because I felt he was in a situation where he was a bit lost and didn’t get the help he needed,” she told CNN by email.

“I think it’s important to help our passengers, even if it is beyond my skills and duties. It wasn’t that much of an effort to go looking for the bag in the stock of the handlers. And in general, I think it’s important to help other people from a humane perspective.”

Luke and Gray Barnett certainly agree.

“I just needed someone to care, and finally found someone who did,” says Luke.

Of course, it was being able to precision-point the bag’s location that emboldened the pair in their hunt for the bag.

“I don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t had the AirTag,” says Barnett. “If I couldn’t have told Ella where it was, how much longer would it have taken? After a certain number of days go by, does [lost luggage] reach a department that does adequate diligence? It seems to me that the airlines don’t do anything for the first few days. I really don’t know if we’d have got it back. It’s scary to think about.”

A ‘broken system’

Ella Dollinschi arranged to send the bag to Chicago O'Hare. It then made its way to Greenville.

As someone who works with financial institutions to create processes that cut expenses, Barnett has less praise for the airlines.

“If airlines were better, they’d save so much money,” he says.

“How many times did I call? How long will it take them to respond to the DoT? To respond on social media? The reputational cost of my post on Facebook? I can’t imagine how much money they could have saved on my case – and if you magnify that by the number of all these [lost baggage] cases, they’d save a lot of money if they were better at this.

“The whole system feels like it’s broken.”

His ire rests mainly with United – who took his money for the ticket.

“They should have taken more ownership – I think it’s funny that the airport took action when they weren’t the responsible party,” he says.

United said in a statement: “We worked with Mr Barnett to reroute his bike to Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport as soon as the other airline gave it to us. We’ve apologized to Mr. Barnett for the delay and provided travel credits to use toward a future flight.”

Barnett says he’s received $150 in credits. It cost $400 to check the bike for its journey.

It’s not all negative – Barnett believes the experience taught his son an important life lesson about polite persistence: “I love the fact that he has these experiences. I love that he travels without his parents in his pocket. I’m happy that he had the experience, and we resolved it together.”

Having said that: “He’ll probably never check a bag without an AirTag for the rest of his life.”

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