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Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009. It was later revealed that the FO was unwittingly pulling the sidestick back, stalling the aircraft. The aircraft was an Airbus 330.

China Airlines Flight 006 almost crashed in February 1985 when the captain failed to step on the rudder after a sudden single engine failure at its cruising altitude and it got into a steep spiral. It recovered from the spiral descent thousands of feet above the Pacific Ocean but it experienced significant structural damages. The aircraft was a Boeing 747.

Some people say that the first accident could have been prevented if the sidesticks of the pilots had been inter-connected such that when one pilot moves his sidestick the other moves the same, just like the yoke system of Boeing aircraft. Also, some people say the second accident could have been prevented if the autopilot system had been programmed to correct excessive roll or pitch maneuvers caused by the pilot's control inputs or their absence.

But it looks like neither of the companies has adopted such suggestions, and that got me curious. Do they learn from each other? Do they correct their systems based on their competitor's accidents?

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting question. Do Ying and Yang learn from each other? For a description of Ying and Yang, please see here: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yin_and_yang $\endgroup$ – user7241 Dec 10 '17 at 9:38
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    $\begingroup$ Boeing and Airbus use completely different design philosophies in some subsystems. So some suggestions for one company's aircraft would not apply to the other's aircraft. $\endgroup$ – user7241 Dec 10 '17 at 11:28
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    $\begingroup$ It's more the authorities learning from accidents and issuing new rules and regulations which affect both companies. Once a design is certified, the manufacturer always prefers to leave it unchanged. All aspects of a design had been thought over before several times and the one freak incident is unlikely to change the conclusion which had been reached earlier. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Dec 10 '17 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ Is this question restricted to just the cockpit interface? Parts of the question sound a lot more general than that. $\endgroup$ – Cody P Feb 19 '18 at 18:11
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Yes Airbus and Boeing learn from each other: they compete with each other. Both are implementing successful features of the competitor, and when the A320 came to market it required differentiating features to gain market share. The competing design from Boeing, the 737Classic, was completely re-designed in the 90s because of the lower specific fuel consumption of the A320. The other Boeing product competing in this class, the B757, is out of production. The resulting 737NG has outstanding fuel economy as well, partly achieved by the blended winglet which Boeing pioneered for this class of aircraft.

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Where the two companies differ is in the design philosophy for interaction of the pilot with the aircraft. The A320 is actually the oldest design of Airbus that is still produced - the type was certified in 1988, while the 737 and the 747 type certificates were issued two decades earlier. The 737 MAX still has a common type rating with the original B737-100 and this poses a limit on the introduction of new flight crew ergonomics. The A320 could completely re-design all known features in cockpit control and implement new ones from military aircraft, such as the side stick which made the F-16 such a successful air superiority fighter.

The OP focuses on accidents and incidents which happened with the planes, due to incorrect pilot action. This is a subject where everybody learns from everybody, to continue to make air travel safer:

  • Every accident is thoroughly analysed in order to find the cause and prevent it from happening again in the future. This is done by independent government organisation who only focus on the cause of the accident, nothing else. The NTSB in the USA, the BEA in France.
  • As a result of this, there may be improvements imposed by the overseeing regulatory aviation organisations: FAA in the USA, EASA in Europe. They may write directives for aircraft manufacturers to implement changes in the design of the aircraft if that is where the incident cause was, or in the training procedures of pilots if pilot error was found to be a factor.

The ultimate proof of the pudding is in safety, and both Boeing and Airbus have excellent and very similar safety records for their aeroplanes. There are many ways that lead to Rome - everybody learns from everybody, and continues to improve their design which will always differ to an extent from the competition.

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Since the question and some of the other answers especially highlight the stall scenario, there is one aspect which has not been mentioned yet: not only do Airbus and Boeing learn from each other, but there is actually evidence that they also learn together, cooperatively.

In fact, both companies deem the research on stalls so important, that their aerodynamics team join forces in order to find the best strategies for stall avoidance as well as procedures to recover. There is a joint publication titled Stalling Transport Aircraft from 2013 (a web search will also find the PDF), which end with the statement:

The collaboration of our two companies on this paper resulted in a realization that, while there are some differences in the way each approaches stall testing, the vast majority of things discussed are common. While we may be fierce competitors in the sales arenas around the world, when it comes to flight test safety, there is no competition.

In a similar vein, also an article of the Jan 2011 issue of Airbus' Safety First magazine highlights the joint effort in its introduction:

The worldwide air transport fleet has recently encountered a number of stall events, which indicate that this phenomenon may not be properly understood and managed in the aviation community. As a consequence, the main aircraft manufacturers have agreed together to amend their stall procedures and to reinforce the training. A working group gathering Authorities and aircraft manufacturers will publish recommendations for harmonized procedures and appropriate training. This article aims at reminding the aerodynamic phenomenon associated to the stall, and the recently published new procedures.

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AF447 was an entirely avoidable situation. Not so much the fault of the aircraft as Air France for not properly training their pilots. Airbus has a simple remedy for loss of airspeed indication at cruising altitude on the A330: five degrees nose up, 85% power, and it maintains cruising speed and altitude. That is, if you don't freeze up and ignore those 'pitot fail' warnings.

A contributing factor may be the high level of automation Airbus uses, which could lull pilots into struggling to handle a situation the automation can't handle... like pitot tubes freezing up.

Same with CA 006 - pilot error on what should have been a simple situation to handle. Lose one engine on a multiengine aircraft, the first thing you do is stabilize the flight attitude by trimming for asymmetric thrust.

The only thing to be learned from either incident is that pilots of large commercial airliners need to be up to date on their emergency procedures training.

Do the companies learn from each other? Given that Airbus spent a fortune developing a bigger 747 and now will probably have to eat those development costs, just as Boeing was moving away from large airliners as not economically viable compared to the large twins like the 777 and 787... no, doesn't look like they're learning from each other.

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    $\begingroup$ Your not really answering the question, the last paragraph seems to be more of an afterthought (altho it tries to answer the question) but answer only in a "business" point of view which doesn't really seems to be OP's focus. $\endgroup$ – Antzi Dec 11 '17 at 8:09
  • $\begingroup$ Pilots are probably fairly easy to blame if something happens. That some functionality could have been implemented in a rather complicated and unintuitive way by the manufacturer seems to never be an issue. If something goes wrong the pilots simply "lacked proper training" to handle the specific emergency situation. The more complex such a human/machine system is, the more probably can go wrong. $\endgroup$ – user7241 Dec 11 '17 at 21:56
  • $\begingroup$ Given the large numbers of 747s built, the huge-airplane market segment has been a viable one for some time. The fact that the A380 is not doing so well and Boing is moving away from the big 4-engine planes, does not mean that Airbus is repeating the mistake of Boing, it merely means that Airbus was entering the 4-engine segment a tad too late. $\endgroup$ – Dohn Joe Dec 12 '17 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ @jjack: From reading the accident investigation reports and their recommendations, it seems to me the investigators do very much look at design of controls, information presentation and numerous other aspects of cockpit design. $\endgroup$ – RedGrittyBrick Dec 13 '17 at 23:48
  • $\begingroup$ @RedGrittyBrick I still think part of the problem is that humans are very adept at learning many things, and that this is sometimes used against them. It's much easier to blame the pilot's bad training then to question the manufacturers design decision. $\endgroup$ – user7241 Dec 13 '17 at 23:54
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AF447 scenario was faced multiple times by TAM Brazil (today LATAM Brazil) pilots. I have a friend that used to work for TAM and used to fly the A330 as first officer. Multiple times the pitots got stuck and pilots got out of it. He personally never faced it, but the first time this took place, there were internal memos sent out to alert pilots about the risk and reinforcing proper response.
So while the situation was preventable either by preventing the malfunction or by training, pilots are paid the big bucks because they have to know all of those possible malfunction scenarios and have to be able to react to those smartly.
Pilots that depend on planes never failing should never get hired by airlines.
I can point at the deadly B737 rudder problem that crashed several B737s in the 80s, taking many many years to find and fix the problem.
They learn a lot from each other, as well as from their own mistakes.

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    $\begingroup$ "Pilots that depend on planes never failing should never get hired by airlines." I'd probably take this one step further, by saying that pilots that depend on planes never failing shouldn't be pilots in the first place. We can only make failures so unlikely (and we have been making great progress in that area); we can't completely eliminate the possibility. At some point something will go wrong with the aircraft, and someone up front will have to react appropriately. For this they need the appropriate training, and the mindset that even though it is unlikely, things still can go wrong. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Feb 20 '18 at 9:36

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