U.S. to mandate Boeing 737 MAX 8 design changes after crash

WASHINGTON, March 11 (Reuters) - The United States will mandate that Boeing Co implement design changes by April that have been in the works for months for the 737 MAX 8 fleet after a fatal crash in October but said the plane was airworthy and did not need to be grounded after a second crash on Sunday.

An Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 bound for Nairobi crashed minutes after take-off on Sunday, killing all 157 aboard and raising questions about the safety of the new variant of the industry workhorse, one of which also crashed in Indonesia in October, killing 189 people.

Boeing confirmed the Federal Aviation Administration's announcement late Monday that it will deploy a software upgrade across the 737 MAX 8 fleet "in the coming weeks" as pressure mounted. Two U.S. senators called the fleet's immediate grounding and a rising number of airlines said they would voluntarily ground their fleets.

The company confirmed it had for several months "been developing a flight control software enhancement for the 737 MAX, designed to make an already safe aircraft even safer."

RELATED: Deadly Ethiopian Airlines crash kills all passengers aboard

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Deadly Ethiopian Airlines crash kills all passengers thought to be onboard
People walk past a part of the wreckage at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
Family members of the victims involved in a plane crash react at Addis Ababa international airport Sunday, March 10, 2019. An Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed shortly after takeoff from Ethiopia's capital on Sunday morning, killing all 157 people thought to be on board, the airline and state broadcaster said, as anxious families rushed to airports in Addis Ababa and the destination, Nairobi. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)
A family member of a victim involved in a plane crash talks on a mobile phone at Addis Ababa international airport Sunday, March 10, 2019. An Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed shortly after takeoff from Ethiopia's capital on Sunday morning, killing all 157 people thought to be on board, the airline and state broadcaster said, as anxious families rushed to airports in Addis Ababa and the destination, Nairobi. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)
Family members arrive at Bole International airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Sunday, March 10, 2019, to check on information on the Ethiopian flight that crashed. An Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed shortly after takeoff from Ethiopia’s capital on Sunday morning, killing all 157 people thought to be on board, the airline and state broadcaster said. (AP Photo/Elias Masseret)
Un avion des Ethiopian Airlines à destination de Nairobi s'est écrasé dimanche avec 149 passagers et huit membres d'équipage, a annoncé la compagnie. "Il n'y a pas de survivants à bord du vol, qui transportait des passagers de 33 pays", rapporte quant à elle la télévision publique, citant une source proche d'Ethiopian Airlines. /Photo d'archives/REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
Family members arrive at Bole International airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Sunday, March 10, 2019, to check on information on the Ethiopian flight that crashed. An Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed shortly after takeoff from Ethiopia’s capital on Sunday morning, killing all 157 people thought to be on board, the airline and state broadcaster said. (AP Photo/Elias Masseret)
FILE - In this Jan. 25, 2010, file photo, Bole International airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. An Ethiopian Airlines flight with 157 people thought to be on board crashed shortly after takeoff Sunday, March 10, 2019 from Ethiopia's capital headed to Nairobi, the airline said. (AP Photo/Samson Haileyesus-file)
Relatives of the victims involved in a plane crash wait for information Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, Kenya, Sunday, March 10, 2019. An Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed shortly after takeoff from Ethiopia's capital on Sunday morning, killing all 157 people thought to be on board, the airline and state broadcaster said, as anxious families rushed to airports in Addis Ababa and the destination, Nairobi. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)
Relatives of the victims involved in a plane crash wait for information at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, Kenya, Sunday, March 10, 2019. An Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed shortly after takeoff from Ethiopia's capital on Sunday morning, killing all 157 people thought to be on board, the airline and state broadcaster said, as anxious families rushed to airports in Addis Ababa and the destination, Nairobi. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)
Kenya Airport Authority (KAA) Managing Director and CEO Jonny Andersen and Kenya's Transport Minister James Macharia (L) give a press conference on Ethiopia airline's crash in Ethiopia, at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 10, 2019. - An Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 crashed Sunday morning en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi with 149 passengers and eight crew believed to be on board, Ethiopian Airlines said. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP) (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)
Kenya Airport Authority (KAA) Managing Director and CEO Jonny Andersen speaks during a press conference on Ethiopia airline's crash in Ethiopia, at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 10, 2019. - An Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 crashed Sunday morning en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi with 149 passengers and eight crew believed to be on board, Ethiopian Airlines said. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP) (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)
A Chinese group send messages as informing about their colleagues who were allegedly onboard the plane that crashed in Ethiopia, at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 10, 2019. - An Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 crashed on March 10 morning en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi with 149 passengers and eight crew believed to be on board, Ethiopian Airlines said. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP) (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)
A Chinese group look at the arrival flight schedule as informing about their colleagues who were allegedly onboard the plane that crashed in Ethiopia, at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 10, 2019. - An Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 crashed on March 10 morning en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi with 149 passengers and eight crew believed to be on board, Ethiopian Airlines said. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP) (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman reacts as she waits for the updated flight information of Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302, where her fiance was onboard at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi, Kenya March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
People use their mobile phones near the flight information board displaying the details of Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302, at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi, Kenya March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
A flight information board displaying the details of Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 is seen at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi, Kenya March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
A man looks at his phone outside the Ethiopian Airlines offices in downtown Nairobi, Kenya March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
A woman walks with her child outside the Ethiopian Airlines offices in downtown Nairobi, Kenya March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
BISHOFTU, ETHIOPIA - MARCH 12: Investigators with the U.S. National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) look over debris at the crash site of Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 on March 12, 2019 in Bishoftu, Ethiopia.. All 157 passengers and crew perished after the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 Flight came down six minutes after taking off from Bole Airport. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
People work to search for belongings and debris for forensic analysis at the crash site of the Ethiopian Airlines operated Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in which their relatives perished among the 157 passengers and crew onboard, at Hama Quntushele village, near Bishoftu, in Oromia region, on March 15, 2019. - A French investigation into the March 10 Nairobi-bound Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX crash that killed 157 passengers and crew opened on March 15 as US aerospace giant Boeing stopped delivering the top-selling aircraft. (Photo by TONY KARUMBA / AFP) (Photo credit should read TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)
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Boeing did not reference Sunday's Ethiopian Airlines crash in connection to the software upgrade. The statement did express the company's condolences to the relatives of the 157 people who died, however.

The FAA said the changes will "provide reduced reliance on procedures associated with required pilot memory items."

The FAA also said Boeing will "update training requirements and flight crew manuals to go with the design change" to an automated protection system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System or MCAS. The changes also include MCAS activation and angle of attack signal enhancements.

The FAA said in the notice made public that external reports are drawing similarities between the crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia. "However, this investigation has just begun and to date we have not been provided data to draw any conclusions or take any actions," according to the Continued Airworthiness Notification to the International Community for Boeing 737 MAX 8 operators.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told reporters regulators would not hesitate to act if they find a safety issue.

"If the FAA identifies an issue that affects safety, the department will take immediate and appropriate action," Chao told reporters. "I want people to be assured that we take these incidents, these accidents very seriously."

Boeing's top executive told employees on Monday he was confident in the safety of the U.S. manufacturer's top-selling 737 MAX aircraft. The company added that it was "still early" in the Ethiopian Airlines investigation.

Reuters and other media outlets have reported that Boeing has for months planned design changes after the Lion Air crash in Indonesia but the FAA notice was the first public confirmation.

Canada's transport minister also said he will not hesitate to act once the cause of the crash is known.

Two Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Richard Blumenthal called for the immediate grounding of the aircraft, as did Paul Hudson, the president of FlyersRights.org and a member of the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee.

Blumenthal said the planes "should be grounded until the FAA can assure American travelers that these planes are safe."

Sara Nelson, the president of Association of Flight Attendants union, wrote the FAA on Monday asking it to conduct a comprehensive review and "take steps immediately to address concerns and ensure the safety of the 737 MAX fleet."

The National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA are both at the crash site in Ethiopia, Chao said.

Boeing's shares fell as much as 10 percent on the prospect that two such crashes in such a short time could reveal flaws in its new plane. Boeing, whose shares closed down 5.3 percent at $400.01 in the heaviest trading trade since July 2013.

The 737 line, which has flown for more than 50 years, is the world's best-selling modern passenger aircraft and viewed as one of the industry's most reliable.

China ordered its airlines to ground the jet, a move followed by Indonesia and Ethiopia. Other airlines, from North America to the Middle East, kept flying the 737 MAX 8 on Monday after Boeing said it was safe.

Boeing’s 737 MAX is the newest version of a jet that has been a fixture of passenger travel for decades and the cash cow of the world’s largest aircraft maker, competing against Airbus SE’s A320neo family of single-aisle jetliners. The 737 family is considered one of the industry’s most reliable aircraft.

The MAX has a bigger and more efficient engine compared with earlier 737 models.

Boeing rolled out the fuel-efficient MAX 8 in 2017 as an update to the already redesigned 50-year-old 737, and had delivered 350 MAX jets out of the total order tally of 5,011 aircraft by the end of January.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal, Tim Hepher in Paris and Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and James Dalgleish)

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