If you’ve been to an airport recently or a subway station or any of those in-between places human beings have to suffer through in order to get somewhere actually fun, you may have noticed a shift. The travelers, to use the only term I can think of, are extremely on one.
Loud arguments. Lack of spatial awareness. Questionable bathroom behavior. These are always annoying things about airports, but after a year-plus of US lockdowns, it’s gotten worse. The FAA reported a “significantly higher” number of unruly passengers in 2021, including one that left a flight attendant with two missing teeth. Several airlines have stopped serving alcohol onboard in response (at least in coach class), but that can’t stop passengers from drinking at the airport.
That also means there’s been an uptick in viral videos depicting said outbursts. Here to explain the draw of watching a public freakout is a woman who’s been compiling terrible traveler stories for years, Shawn Kathleen (she doesn’t use her last name). She’s the curator of the Instagram account @PassengerShaming, which has 1.3 million followers and posts examples of, say, someone clipping their toenails on a plane or screaming at a TSA agent. A former flight attendant of seven years (she says she’s also worked as a police officer and a paramedic), she’s turned Passenger Shaming into a brand and a full-time job. Below, we chat about the worst thing she’s ever witnessed on a plane, as well as the ethics of it all.
How many submissions do you get a day?
Maybe 300 a week. One thing that I find really interesting is that all of the content I used to get was from crew members. Now 99 percent are from passengers because they don’t want to sit next to these people. They’re like, “I’m calling these people out for this bullshit behavior.”
A lot is foot-related. Arguments. People eating, like, hard-boiled eggs or tuna on the plane. People clipping their nails, changing dirty diapers is a big one.
What do you think is behind the surge in unruly passengers?
It’s [having been] cooped up and wanting to get out. Maybe they go to the airport and there’s delays and things take longer because now they have to go through all these different processes and wear masks. It was a shitshow before, and now add everything else on top of it.
I am friends with a lot of flight attendants and pilots, and a lot of them were furloughed for eight or 12 months and are just going back and dealing with this. When I was a flight attendant, 99 percent of the people I ran into were awesome. This is just a really small percentage of people that we highlight, but I always like to make sure people know I’m not some angry, horrible person running around hating everybody.
How do you decide what to post and what not to?
I never shame anybody based on weight, their appearance, anything of that nature. It’s behaviors only, which I think is a reason why it’s really successful.
A lot of your posts are based on news stories, but what’s your approach to fact-checking? Was there anything that ever made you reevaluate how you run the account?
I don’t think I’ve ever gotten anything wrong, per se. Things may have developed in addition, so I’ll go back and edit a post with new information. But I do try to vet things that people send in.
Two days ago, I had somebody send me a picture — you will not see it on my Instagram because Instagram pulled it down, which is so annoying. It was just a guy laying on the floor sleeping in the gate, and he had his hand under his belt.
Multiple people sent it to me. So I would ask, “Oh, did you take this picture?” One person would be like, “Yep,” and another person’s like, “Yeah this is such and such airport,” and I’m like, “Actually, no, it’s in Atlanta, because the person who sent it to me originally gave me all the information.” He had posted it in a pilot and crew forum.
If I were to find out that something was completely off base or incorrect, I would absolutely just remove it or do a follow-up, for sure.
I always wonder when I see these spaces devoted to bad public behavior, like Influencers in the Wild, Crazy Karens, or the Reddit forum r/PublicFreakout, whether the videos could have possibly been taken out of context or just simply fake. How do you feel about them?
What I like to say is, we could “what if” every single thing that I put on there, but it ruins the whole concept. I’m not going to intentionally post anything that would be harmful or embarrassing to somebody with a condition or an issue. I don’t post if it’s clearly a mental health issue.
I just like to use these as teachable moments. It’s not just about shaming people, it’s saying, “Hey, there’s this lady who’s painting their nails on an airplane and it’s an enclosed cabin with recirculated air” and people will respond to me via email or DM and say, “Oh my God, that never crossed my mind to not do that.”
Why do you think we love these kinds of accounts?
People say, like, “I just love looking at this every day and getting a good laugh.” There’s definitely always that element of schadenfreude; I guess that’s just how we’re wired. But also, I think secretly, sometimes people are looking through it thinking, “Okay, this is something I shouldn’t be doing.” There’s that little percentage of an educational component.
Has Passenger Shaming turned into your full-time job?
I’ve been doing this full time for like, five years. [Years ago] I took a job working at a level one trauma center in an emergency department because I wanted to get out, help people, and work with patients. I was so physically and mentally exhausted from that job, and during this time, I did a brand deal with a company, and that deal would have been close to four years of my salary. So I was like, “Peace out.”
As a flight attendant I was making $18,000 a year. When you’re starting out, it’s bare-bones. I was eligible for food stamps. Flight attendants don’t get paid until the door of the airplane is closed and the plane starts moving. These are things I don’t expect the public to know, that you don’t work a 40-hour workweek, you fly around 100 or 120 hours a month. That’s how you get paid.
What’s your ultimate goal?
Ideally I would love to partner with a really large travel-related brand, like the Travel Channel or Expedia, who could help curate and build the brand. I would really like to use the platform to educate the general public about airlines. Your flight crew absolutely wants you to be happy and have a nice, comfortable, pleasant flight, because they don’t want to be stuck on an airplane with 200 people that are pissed off. There’s no gain in that for them.
I do want to add, especially right now, if you’re getting ready to go out to travel, lead with grace and a lot of patience. These are people who maybe haven’t been working for the last year. They might be understaffed. Just imagine what these crew members have to deal with all day. We’re seeing the videos; these aren’t one offs. Please be kind and patient, and that includes your fellow passengers. And then my big travel tip for right now would be: Give yourself double the amount of time you think it’ll take.
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