On January 23, 2015, I flew from Buenos Aires, Argentina (SAEZ) to Santiago, Chile (SCEL). It was a very comfortable night flight in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner of LAN airlines, though it was delayed.

During the descent and a pronounced turn to the left at approximately 4,000ft above the Andes Mountains, I saw through the window a wood fire in the middle of darkness with some shadows around. Then a brilliant white light blinking: three short flashes, three long flashes, three short flashes. I thought: Wow! That antenna blinked like an SOS signal!

One second after the first sequence, again: three short, three long, three short. Then I unfastened the security belt to run and tell the closest flight attendant: Sir! There is an SOS signal there, and he started to give attention to it.

After a successful landing on runway 17 L/R, I asked the flight attendant if they have a procedure to handle this kind of sightings. He told me there is no such procedure and that I should go to inform the civil protection office.

Due to a lack of enough time before the next flight, I asked a security officer to inform the civil protection office, giving her the flight number, exact time of the sighting and after calling the person in charge, she asked me for my name and details about the sighting. Trying to be descriptive, I clearly told her all details before running to catch the next flight and almost losing it.

How should passengers report SOS signal sightings?

P.S. The place of sighting was somewhere over the mountains in the west of Los Andes in Chile.

Place of sighting Place of sighting

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    $\begingroup$ You did exactly what I would have done as well. Inform the cabin crew. In turn, they can inform the flight crew who will notify ATC. ATC has a direct line to search and rescue. $\endgroup$ – J. Hougaard Jun 3 '17 at 6:49
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    $\begingroup$ How is this opinion based? There are laid down regulations and procedures for dealing with exactly this situation. $\endgroup$ – Simon Jun 3 '17 at 8:07
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    $\begingroup$ Did you eventually find out what happened that day? We're curious. ;-) $\endgroup$ – PerlDuck Jun 3 '17 at 8:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Simon there are procedures for how flight crews should react. As far as I know, there are no procedures for how passengers should react. $\endgroup$ – J. Hougaard Jun 3 '17 at 9:45
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    $\begingroup$ thank you for all your horizon expanding comments :D @PerlDuck on next day i tried to contact the civil protection office and googled for news about alpinists in chile without finding something after some days :/ i still having curiosity after two years and would like to know what happened? $\endgroup$ – ncomputers Jun 3 '17 at 16:07

There is a procedure, at least for the aircraft crew.

It is appropriate for a flight crew to transmit a "pan pan" or even a "mayday relay" so a passenger should immediately inform the senior cabin crew member, usually by asking to speak to the "purser". SOS is an internationally recognised distress signal. If the purser did not act upon it, I would politely, but assertively request that they inform the captain since these procedures are part of standard pilot training and flight crews are required to respond to potentially life threatening situations.

Reporting emergencies or urgent situations is not restricted to the aircraft itself. It can, and should be used, where any threat to life or safety is real or possible. ATC in turn can contact the appropriate local resources depending on the situation.

An example would be if I was flying and witnessed a fire or perhaps a road crash and emergency services were not already in attendance, I would not hesitate to contact ATC and be prepared to offer assistance if possible, for example relaying position or exact circumstances.

You did the right thing. Perhaps you could have been a bit more assertive at the time, when the cabin crew member incorrectly told you that there is no procedure, since minutes can count.

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    $\begingroup$ "Pan pan" seems to give privileges to the cabin crew, more attention and more resources (runway, airspace...). I see it as a right granted to the crew, not an obligation for the crew to report something to ATC. For the "mayday relay" which seems more obligation related, is it applicable to a flight attendant? By which regulation? In which airlines? $\endgroup$ – mins Jun 3 '17 at 10:58
  • $\begingroup$ @mins What is the cabin crew going to do with a longer runway or less airspace restrictions? :P $\endgroup$ – reirab Jun 4 '17 at 12:18
  • $\begingroup$ @reirab: My question is how the mayday relay would be known by the flight attendant and force them to transmit the OP observation to the pilot. My comment about the pan-pan was that it didn't look like an obligation to the flight crew (and I wrote cabin crew instead). $\endgroup$ – mins Jun 4 '17 at 14:02
  • $\begingroup$ @mins Yeah, I figured you meant flight crew rather than cabin crew for that part. :) $\endgroup$ – reirab Jun 4 '17 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ @mins. I don't believe that a passenger could "force" a flight attendant to do anything. As I say, if I was in this situation, I would politely but assertively ask them to inform the captain. I know this will vary a lot. I am a typical alpha male and I know how to be very assertive without being threatening but the first part of this chain is, as you correctly say, not mandated. $\endgroup$ – Simon Jun 9 '17 at 7:18

This is not a matter of aviation, but of general laws. As such it depends on the country (which for an aircraft is the country of registration, here Chile).

If someone asks for assistance and you deny it without a good reason, then in some countries you are relevant of "failure to assist a person in danger" or "duty to rescue". The idea is someone in great distress has a right to be rescued which automatically give others obligations to not abandon them.

In many countries there is no criminal law associated (but there is one in my country --France-- with a possibility of rotting five years in jail), but only a civil responsibility, meaning you can be required to pay damages.

This would apply to any person, the witness, the cabin crew and the cockpit crew, ATC, etc.

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