If you ever find yourself in this position, it is important to understand that you do not have to make that call. You are under no legal obligation (regulation or otherwise) to place the call. The request is not an ATC instruction under FAR §91.123. So, if you don't want to call you don't have to. But just because you don't have to call, that doesn't mean you shouldn't call. You need to analyze your situation and understand the pros/cons of making the call before you decide to simply ignore ATC's request.
Why does ATC want you to call?
For starters, ATC wants to obtain your personal information so they know who was flying the aircraft. Although ATC may have the aircraft's registration number, it may not know who was flying the aircraft. This is especially true if the flight was a VFR flight without a flight plan. Also, if the aircraft is a rental or club aircraft available to multiple pilots, ATC won't necessarily know which of those pilots is actually flying the aircraft. So, ATC wants to identify the pilot and obtain his or her information. And if you make the call, you will be providing the FAA with the connection between the aircraft operation and you, the pilot.
ATC may also want to discuss what happened. Depending upon the circumstances, it is possible that providing ATC with an explanation of what happened will resolve the situation. If the situation resulted from a simple mistake or flawed procedure, ATC may provide some informal counseling to ensure that you don't end up in the same situation in the future, and that will be the end of it. Under the FAA's new compliance philosophy, this would be considered a "compliance action." However, if the situation was more complicated or severe (e.g. an intentional deviation that resulted in loss of separation) that isn't the type of situation that would be handled as a compliance action. In that case, you may not want to make the call.
What happens to the information you provide during the call?
If you decide to make the call, you need to understand a couple of key points. First, the call will be recorded. So, the FAA will have a record of what you say during the call. Second, the FAA will use the information you provide to determine how it is going to handle the situation. That could be good for you or it could be bad, depending upon what happened and what you say. If it is bad, the FAA will not hesitate to use the information you provided against you in an enforcement action.
Should you make the call?
If you are asked to contact ATC after a flight you need to answer a number of questions to determine whether it makes sense to make the call:
- What happened?
- Why did it happen? Did it result from a simple mistake, flawed procedure etc.?
- Is ATC able to connect you, the pilot, with the flight operation?
- Is it the type of situation that the FAA should handle as a "compliance action"?
When you are considering these questions, it may make sense to discuss the matter with an aviation attorney. He or she should be able to help you analyze the situation to determine whether calling ATC will help or hurt you and, if it makes sense, what you should and shouldn't say if you do decide to make the call. You should also make sure to file your ASRS Form with NASA so you can potentially benefit from the FAA's Aviation Safety Reporting Program.
The good news is that the FAA's new compliance philosophy is resulting in fewer enforcement actions in cases of simple pilot deviations where the pilot does decide to make the call. The bad news is that you now have more to consider before you decide whether you should or should not make the call. If you find yourself in this situation, make sure you think things through and get the advice you need BEFORE you make the call.