There are about 15,000 air traffic controllers managing the US airspace. When you think of ATC, you typically either think of the radar controllers at an Air Route Traffic Control Center, or perhaps the tower controllers. But one of the very toughest jobs in ATC is the ground controller at a major airport, who basically acts as the traffic cop for all the planes moving along the taxiways. From the time you push back from the gate until you enter the runway for takeoff, you’re managed by Ground. Similarly, after you exit the runway, until you enter the ramp for your gate, Ground moves you along as expeditiously as possible.
Take a look at the diagram. Taxiways are given an alphabetical name, and various intersections are similarly named. For instance, there’s taxiway ALPHA, and it has several intersections, such as WHISKEY ALPHA and MIKE ALPHA.
The challenge is, there are typically more planes moving, and heading to and from the gates than there are gates available. If a plane is even slightly delayed pushing back from the gate, the plane that just landed and is heading for that gate has no where to go. Throw in some poor visibility, and things get really sporty.
As an added benefit, don’t forget that Kennedy is one of the premiere international terminals, with flights from all over the world coming in. International agreements have lead to the adoption of English as the standard language of air traffic control, but that doesn’t mean every international pilot has the world’s best grasp of English. And the accents… Add in the fact that pilots occasionally make mistakes (they’re doing a heck of a lot more than simply taxiing around when they’re taxiing) and pretty soon, Ground has his hands full.
As noted, there’s about 15,000 controllers. And most toil in obscurity. No one ever learns their names, even if their voices are heard on a regular basis. But there’s a couple of voices that are well known throughout the industry. There’s Logan Bob (a well known tower controller at Boston’s Logan International Airport), and then there’s Kennedy Steve. Kennedy is unusual for such a large busy airport in only having one Ground controller position normally. And Kennedy Steve is well known to lots of pilots for his humor, competence, and occasional snark.
Technically, Steve is guilty of a misuse of correct phraseology, which is a big no-no in aviation safety. Quite a few accidents have had miscommunication caused by poor phraseology as a significant factor. But if you listen closely to Steve, you’ll note that he uses “Angry Puppy”* and “1%”** with domestic carriers, and tends to slow down and more carefully enunciate with foreign carriers. And even when things get jammed up, Steve remains remarkably cheerful.
*Angry Puppy- A play on the McDonnell Douglas MD-83/88 nickname of “Mad Dog.”
**1%- Gulfstream business jet- since only the richest 1% can afford to fly them.