Forgive me if there is an obvious answer to this, but I was just listening to this “Kennedy Steve” playlist, and he seems to joke a lot more than most ground controllers I’ve listened to.

I have three questions about this.

  1. Is it legal for air traffic controllers to joke on the air at all, and definitely this much?
  2. Are Ground controllers held to the same rules regarding communication as Tower, Approach/Departure, or Center?
  3. Is it more serious for a pilot to start joking on ATC, or for a controller to, in terms of consequences?
  • $\begingroup$ Related question about ATC phraseology $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 18:10
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    $\begingroup$ @fooot that's sort of related, but that's asking more about whether apologizing is OK, my question is whether joking around for no real reason is OK $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ On a relatively slow frequency as long as you aren't issuing conflicting or confusing instructions, this isn't expressly forbidden, however FAA would like you to keep things "professional". A little joking around can usually be heard, whether it be back-handed comments (like telling a 747 "caution, wake turbulence Cessna 150") or just a little friendly banter about a local sports game (happens frequently here at KGRB). $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 19:17
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    $\begingroup$ Just a related discussion about the importance of clarity and brevity in communication, not saying it all applies exactly here. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ @fooot ah OK, I thought you were suggesting it was a duplicate. ;) $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 20:09

2 Answers 2


(US-based answer)

Yes, it's legal. Yes, everyone - including pilots - is held to the same standard of professionalism. And there are no real consequences for anyone (usually). The simple fact is that we're all human beings and humor, slang and jokes are all part of how we communicate and even handle stress.

Legally, the FAA doesn't regulate radio communication, the FCC does. Of course, the FAA has aviation regulations and guidelines that apply, but they're very general (as they should be). Using standard phraseology is strongly encouraged at all times for clearer, quicker communication. The ATC orders 2-4-14 say:

Use the words or phrases in radiotelephone and interphone communication as contained in the P/CG or, within areas where Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) is in use, the phraseology contained in the applicable CPDLC message set.

In other words, stick to standard phrasing. But there's nothing in there about avoiding humor or jokes.

As for different controllers, they all follow the same standards for radio use no matter where or on which frequency they're working. In my experience, the quieter the frequency the more likely it is that someone - controller or pilot - will joke or even have a brief conversation. I was once taxiing a C172 to the far end of a 12,000ft runway - which takes some time - and the tower controller asked me a few short questions about my accent, where I was from etc. But I was the only aircraft on his frequency at the time and I'm sure he wouldn't have done it if it would have impacted operations or safety in any way.

Which brings me to your final point. In normal circumstances, no one cares about this stuff at all because a) it has no significant impact on anything, and b) it makes life a little more interesting for everyone. It's practically impossible to fly cross-country for more than half an hour without hearing someone make a joke, chat with someone else (briefly), or even complain about something. And again, in normal circumstances that's completely fine: no one expects pilots and ATC to act like robots with a limited vocabulary.

But, if a joke or non-standard phraseology causes offence or a misunderstanding or - in the worst case - an incident of some kind then the FAA or NTSB could be interested. This column from NASA's ASRS team has some examples of reports of problems causes by non-standard phraseology, including this one:

"I called for clearance to St. Louis as follows: 'Clearance delivery, company ident, ATIS info, federal aid to St. Louis.' Federal aid was meant to mean FAA clearance in a joking fashion. The Controller misinterpreted this to mean that we were being hijacked and called the FBI and airport police...I used no 'standard' phraseology to indicate nor was it my intent to indicate we had a hijacking...I will use absolutely standard phraseology in the future..." (# 248982)

And this incident got quite a lot of attention, even outside the aviation press. I don't think it makes sense to say that it's 'more serious' for ATC to make jokes than pilots because every incident is different anyway.

All in all, joking on the radio is like joking in any professional context: if it doesn't disrupt your work or other people's work, if you're not insulting people or wasting their time, and if you're not saying anything stupid or dangerous then no one really minds.

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    $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that the FAA can write up a controller for non-standard phraseology (and would almost certainly do so if it lead to a deviation, loss of separation, or some other incident). Also folks like Kennedy Steve and Boston John, as long-serving full-performance controllers with extensive experience have a sense of when joking around won't cause trouble, and in fact use standard phraseology more than they joke around. If a new controller were to cut up on the frequency like this they'd probably get a "talking-to" from the facility manager... $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ Wow, to be honest I don't even see how saying go around could be interpreted as a joke in any context. It's like a pilot calling mayday as a ''joke''... $\endgroup$
    – Cloud
    Commented Jun 28, 2018 at 9:34

The important thing to realise here is that "Kennedy Steve" is an experienced veteran controller, so he knows exactly what is appropriate and when. When there's heavy congestion (not rare at JFK) or an emergency in progress, the jokes stop and everything is business; once the crisis is past, a little bit of levity diffuses the tension.

"Qantas 12, follow the single engine Cessna, caution propwash."

JFK is also a major international airport, so some of the pilots have only a limited command of English. Kennedy Steve does his best to accommodate these as well, switching to more standard phraseology and clearer diction. Even then, he sometimes has to repeat himself.

English is also the standard language of the sea. Nevertheless, radio conversation does occur in local languages as well. This is a famous example from the Gulf of Finland; after the initial Mayday call in English, much of the conversation is in Finnish and Swedish.


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