In the last twenty-some years, I’ve flown in the networks of two major airlines. Learning to navigate the various hubs is one of the biggest challenges. Those hubs in the United States are among the busiest in the world, so it’s even more challenging.

Going in and out of the LAXs and ORDs and ATLs of the world brings a set of assumptions that aren’t always in your favor or even fair. Let’s say you fly within the United network. The controllers at the “home fields” will see an airplane in the UA colors and take for granted that you (and whoever is with you) know what you’re doing, what the flow of traffic is on the ground, and how things generally work. You can’t blame them, and it’s not an unreasonable expectation.

The truth is, controllers don’t realize that there are some places you may not see very often, which means you may be prone to mistakes they may not expect. Chicago is a great example. The ground flow is fairly structured, but it changes based on the runways in use. Once you understand it, it’s fairly logical, but to the neophyte it’s as clear as mud. Add to that the fact that sometimes the ground controllers will rattle off instructions for multiple airplanes at once without giving anyone a chance for a read-back, and it can be very intimidating.

When I first starting going in there, I wasn’t flying in the colors of one of the two “home town” airlines, which got me a bit of slack. The controllers seemed to speak just a bit slower to make sure we knew what we were doing. In the colors of one of the local carriers, that doesn’t happen much. But as pilot movement occurs at the majors, there are captains who are new to certain hubs, and they aren’t always savvy to the ways of the local methods. Recently, I’ve flown with a couple who got lost in the taxi instructions and weren’t entirely sure what the expectation was. I had a pretty good idea, but I wasn’t the one taxiing, and I wasn’t the one who had ultimate responsibility.

So, the captains did the only thing they could do: They set the brake and sat there. In one case we were able to get a word in on the radio and get some clarification. In another, the ground controller finally realized we hadn’t moved, and called us. The second time he spoke in a speed we could hear, and we taxied without further ado.

Controllers work the same airport every day. Pilots bounce around, and have to know them all. While controllers have to ensure the orderly flow of traffic, we can’t help them if we don’t understand what they want, and ORD is one of the most difficult. It’s one thing to tell a student to be willing to ask for progressive taxi, but the true sign of professionalism is to ask for it when you’re flying with paying passengers in the back.—Chip Wright