Tagged: United Airlines

Overbooking Flights, Involuntary Deny Boarding, Contract Carriers, and Other Terms Airline Passengers Don’t Understand

Overbooking flights seems counterintuitive to novice flyers. Most people consider it unthinkable to miss a flight so they can’t fathom why an airline would literally bet that some percentage of passengers will not show for their flights.

The reality is that “things” happen. Passengers will arrive late at the airport, connecting passengers will misconnect from an arriving flight, passengers take an alternate flight (elite passengers often change for free, while casual passengers can do so for a fee), and passengers might score upgrade to another cabin. In other words, a flight’s seating chart can change a lot. But in some cases, more passengers than expected show up. When that happens the airline will ask for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for compensation. I did this a few times—most memorably around Labor Day weekend some years ago—and scored some travel vouchers. In those cases, we were denied boarding at the gate, well before any passenger boarded the flight.

In a few cases, I have seen passengers ask to deplane after we’ve all boarded. But this is not due to the number of seats being overfilled. It’s due to weight restrictions. Small planes, like those used by Express carriers, can only carry so much weight. If a flight is overweight, passengers will have to deplane—in exchange for compensation—in order to meet the weight restrictions.

But if there aren’t enough volunteers, some passengers will be involuntarily denied boarding. That’s what happened this weekend on a United Express flight where a passenger was forcibly removed by airport security. The videos that other passengers captured and shared are hard to watch, and United has twice (kind of) apologized for the violent incident.

The incident has cast blame squarely on United Airlines. Some in China have accused United of racism against the passenger because he was Chinese, while others are threatening a boycott. But it seems like United is not the only party to blame. I see at least three other parties that are responsible for this incident getting out of hand.

  1. The flight was apparently operated by Republic Airlines, a contractor that operates as United Express. I’ve had bad luck with these Express flights, where they are so concerned with on-time departures that they will leave before all the passengers have arrived from incoming flights. Also, not one news story has referred to Republic Airlines nor has its CEO apologized. It’s possible that is because Republic personnel were simply following United’s procedures for denying passengers boarding and calling airport security when a passenger refused to deplane.
  2. The ground crew boarded the flight and then began deplaning passengers. This is puzzling. Gate agents should know that there are more passengers than the aircraft can carry. They should have waited until there were enough volunteers to take another flight before assigning seats to passengers who will have to be denied boarding. The only reason I can imagine for the ground crew doing so is that the flight was overbooked because it was in fact overweight. They didn’t know about the weight situation until everyone boarded the aircraft.
  3. One airport security guard seemingly overstepped his authority. Reports indicate that two airport security officials came onboard and asked that the passenger deplane. The incident became violent after a third security official arrived and physically removed the passenger. I don’t want to characterize law enforcement or security guards in a general way, but there are certainly some that will go too far in “doing their jobs.”

In the public’s mind, however, this incident is all United’s fault. As I’ve said before, airlines and cable companies are among the most publicly hated companies, and no one gives United the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong.

To recover from this, United and other airlines might have to stop overbooking flights and deny boardings. This might seem unthinkable, but at the moment, public opinion needs something to change its mind. Otherwise, imagine the palpable tension and fear the next time you’re waiting to board your flight when an agent announces that a flight is oversold.

The public understands fear much more clearly than they do the logic behind overbooking flights.

The Best Time to Travel

If March is “in like a lion and out like a lamb,” August represents another transitional month if you’re in the academic game. The beginning of the month treats us as gently as a lamb, but the end of the month beats us like a rented mule. However, the month of August also has the reverse effect on travel. As the kiddies go back to school at the end of the month, it becomes a lot easier to travel, especially par avion.

  • Airports become more pleasant. You begin to see fewer over-burdened families clogging the airport lines and more experienced business travelers zipping through security checkpoints and boarding areas.
  • The weather at most places begins to cool significantly. The heat waves that make most people too grumpy to do anything begin to dissipate in late-August. New Yorkers begin returning to our heat island around this time and stuff begins to happen again. It’s the same in Europe, they tell me.
  • Airfares drop from the stratospheric prices over the summer. It’s been years since I’ve flown to California over the summer because it costs about $500-$600 for a domestic flight to LAX this time of year. That’s double the usual fare. I still don’t get how people afford European summer vacations at these nutty prices.

As happens at this time of year, the off-peak travel season is nigh, and airlines have been discounting airfares for fall travel. That’s great because, as we all know, early fall is the best time of year to travel. Over the last month, several airlines began discounting flights between New York and Los Angeles, the markets I travel most frequently, to some pretty reasonable levels. Because I wasn’t deliberately tracking these fares, I don’t have exact figures, but I recall that it started with the LCCs and ULCCs.

  • Virgin America started a fare war with $300 round-trip fares, between JFK and LAX, for travel between August 25 and November 18.
  • Spirit Airlines offered a $260 fare, which shouldn’t even count as a discount because they will add fees for carry-on luggage and printing your boarding pass.
  • Sun Country did something similar, but every time I’ve searched their fares in the past, there was a ridiculously long layover in Minneapolis–St. Paul. It wasn’t worth it.

Then things got more interesting as the legacy carriers got involved, and these guys know how to wage a fare war.

  • American Airlines and US Airways began offering flights between LGA and LAX, with a connection, for $238.
  • American lowered the price on tickets on their own stock to an even lower price: $216. That is about as cheap as I’ve ever seen a non-mistake fare between NYC and LA.
  • On Wednesday morning, American offered two fares, LGA-DFW and DFW-LAX, that when combined could zip you across the country and back for $150.

I implored friends and family to take advantage of these fares, especially when it dropped to $150, because there’s no way that fare was going to stick around long. And it didn’t. By Wednesday night, that fare had evaporated and flying between LGA and LAX, via DFW, cost $370 round-trip.

On Thursday morning, I saw that United matched American’s aggressive pricing and offered its own $150 round-trip fare, between LGA and LAX via Chicago-O’Hare.

I couldn’t resist and booked a trip in mid November. Although September and October are the best months to travel just about anywhere, they’re also among the best months to be in the city.

I’ll head west as the temperatures begin to drop.

No More United at Kennedy Airport

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Sixty-eight years ago yesterday, on June 17, 1947, Pan Am launched the first round-the-world flight, Flight 001, between San Francisco, Honolulu, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Delhi, Beirut, Istanbul, Frankfurt, London, and finally New York. Flight 002 originated in New York and would transit through those same cities on an eastbound course. Over time, the particular routing and destinations would change, but it remained a route until Pan Am ceased operations in the early 1990s. The last airline to fly this route was United Airlines, in the late 1990s, and the last segment of this route to survive is United flying between JFK and LAX.

Yesterday, I learned that United Airlines will be ceasing flights on my most frequently travelled route— between JFK and LAX— and moving those flights to its “New York” hub in Newark, New Jersey.

We have made the decision to move our p.s. service from New York JFK to Newark Liberty International Airport. Effective October 25, all of our p.s. flights between New York and both Los Angeles and San Francisco will operate out of our hub at Newark, and we’ll discontinue our service out of JFK.

This ends United’s presence at JFK airport and moves these venerable transcontinental flights to New Jersey. This is personally inconvenient for me because I live on the same landmass as JFK airport: crossing two rivers to get to Newark can take hours. But it is also a bit sad because of nostalgia. My first flight to New York, in 1998, was on United’s LAX to JFK route. Unlike the other United flights I had taken—especially the short-haul flights between California cities— this was a much different experience.

  • United flew the JFK to LAX route on a dedicated fleet of wide-body Boeing 767 jets.
  • The flights to and from LAX and SFO at JFK arrived and departed from a dedicated area at Terminal 6, while the flights to other destinations, such as London, Chicago, Hong Kong, etc. departed from Terminal 7.
  • There were three classes of service: basic Economy class, what United called Connoisseur class (equivalent to today’s business class), and an even more luxurious First class.
  • The flight numbers were low, like a prestigious Manhattan address. My first outbound to JFK was on UA 10 and my return was on UA 1.

Over the years, the flights changed. They were downgauged to single-aisle 757 aircraft in 2004, which made for a more fuel-efficient operation, and inaugurated the dedicated Premium Service (p.s.) fleet. Some time after 9/11, United moved its California-bound flights to Terminal 7 at JFK, which consolidated all of its flights to that terminal.

Then the merger happened, and there were more changes. United eliminated its First and consolidated its premium seats into a single BusinessFirst cabin. Then the flight numbers changed.

Flight numbers might seem meaningless to most passengers, but if an airline assigns a particular flight a low number, it suggests its importance to the carrier. The early evening flight to LAX was UA 25, the early morning flight to SFO was UA 3, and the redeye from LAX was UA 18 for many years. And my first flight from JFK to LAX was a segment of a round-the-world flight that United inherited from Pan Am. Flight 1 passed through New York-JFK, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Bangkok, New Delhi, London, and finally back to JFK, and Flight 2 did the same in reverse. But in recent years, JFK-LAX/SFO flights were assigned three-digit numbers. The only references to their distinct character was that some recent JFK-SFO flights were numbered 415—the area code of San Francisco—and some eastbound LAX-JFK flights were numbered 212—the area code for Manhattan. As an affront to my Angeleno pride, there was no flight 213.

But starting in late October, there will be no more flights to JFK. Flying to New York from Los Angeles or San Francisco will require a connection in Chicago, Denver, Houston or Washington to arrive at LaGuardia airport. Or it will require, what LaGuardia airport’s namesake hated more than anything: landing in New Jersey.

Buy the Inflight Wi-Fi…on the Ground

Around 2009, I began noticing Wi-Fi on more and more flights, especially on transcontinental flights between New York and Los Angeles. Regardless of the airline I flew, such as American, United, or Virgin America, the service would always be provided by Gogo Inflight. The price varied, especially as the product got off the ground—so to speak. One could score promo codes fairly easily or buy a pass before a flight to get a discount. In 2010, Gogo offered prepaid multipacks, and I bought a six-pack that I used over the years. The price was always about $10-12 for an entire flight. On a six-hour westbound flight to California, it was worth the price to get a lot of work done.

A few days ago, I knew that I had a lot work to do on today’s flight to LA, and I looked into getting online for the flight. From the looks of things, the best option for me was the $16 day pass.

Screen Shot 2015 04 24 at 11 14 55 AM

But as far as I could tell, there was not any discount for buying a pass in advance so I held off and waited to buy one in the air. After all, all-day passes bought online were about $15 a few years ago and buying in advance cost saved only about three dollars or so.

That proved to be a rookie mistake. Buying an all-day pass in the air costs a sky-high $34, compared to the $16 it costs on the ground.

Screen Shot 2015 04 24 at 10 04 35 AM

I recognize that this was the ultimate first-world problem—that it cost $18 more to buy inflight Wi-Fi in the air as it did on the ground. But to me, it was steep enough to do some offline work and wait until I got on the ground, at a fussy coffee shop near downtown Los Angeles, to get online and do my work.

Didn’t Louis CK do a bit about airline passengers belly aching over inflight Wi-Fi?

I’m No Longer an Over-Entitled Elite

Today is the last day of my elite status with Mileage Plus, or any other frequent flyer program for that matter. When United followed Delta in awarding elite status based on spending in addition to miles or segments flown, I stopped flying frequently since I knew I was never going to spend enough money to qualify… even for lowly silver status. I also was a little underemployed last year so I deliberately cut back on air travel.

I could not muster enough travel in 2014 to qualify even for Premier Silver.

I could not muster enough travel in 2014 to qualify even for Premier Silver.

Tomorrow, I join legions of ordinary travelers and other over-entitled elites, who earned elite status doing cheap mileage runs in February and October, and are now just general members of United’s frequent flyer program.

What do I lose now that I’m traveling in the back of the Snowpiercer?

  • No more priority boarding. Although it seems like everyone was in Group 2, this is going to sting the most because I always found room for my carry-on bag. Now I am going to be that guy who is gate checking it or shoving it in the overhead bin above some jerk in business class.
  • No more priority check-in or security line access. This was nice whenever I had an ex-JFK flight in the evening, when seemingly every other airline scheduled their flights, and the security line was jammed. But at LAX or SFO, almost everyone is an elite and only Global Services customers really see any shorter lines.
  • No more getting help during IRROPS. Elite status made a difference when something went wrong at the airport, such as flexible rebooking, free rooms, and a much shorter customer service line. I’m going to dread seeking help the next time something goes wrong.

The rest, I think, I can live without…

  • No more randomly getting PreCheck. This happened time-to-time but most frequently when I had a flight out of BUR, where there’s seemingly never a line for security. Ever!
  • No more free checked bag. It used to be two free bags for Silver/Premier/2P members, and three for Gold/Premier Executive/1P and higher.
  • No more complimentary Economy Plus seats at check-in. It used to be available at booking.
  • No more upgrades on domestic, non-PS flights. Since my most common routing was JFK-LAX, I almost never took advantage of these upgrades. And after the merger, I got upgraded exactly once: an improbable LGA-IAH with a companion two years ago. The rest of the time, I was always like #83 on the upgrade list between IAD and SFO. This guy, MON, J, always settled for a row-seven seat, which usually had more legroom than domestic first-class anyway.

But as with the other big change in my life, I’m now free to see what else is out there.

I’m sure I’ll find something to my liking.

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Less for More

It’s no secret that this year has been an extraordinarily light year in terms of travel. As late as September, I had not boarded an airplane since returning from California in early January. Since then, I have flown one revenue flight on United this year, amounting to a paltry 3,186 elite qualifying miles and two measly segments.

My revenue flight map for 2014 looks pretty bare.

My revenue flight map for 2014 looks pretty bare.

This is much less than last year, for example, where I flew enough to qualify for Premier Silver on segments instead of my usual method of qualifying on miles. Last year, I flew thirty segments over 24,472 miles. That was possible when I visited Sarah’s family, who all live in the middle of the country and visiting them almost always requires a connecting flight, more than my own kin, where I can rack a bunch of miles with each nonstop flight to LAX and back.

I sat in more planes in 2013 than I probably had ever before.

Where I sat on more planes in 2013 than I probably had ever before.

I also spent well over $1,200 compared to the $130 I spent so far this year. The only other flight I have planned for 2014 is to visit my family in California over Christmas. And that flight is on American Airlines, although I seriously considered taking the three-day train from New York to Los Angeles, via Chicago.

My decline in travel will cost me my elite status on United. But I’m not upset about losing it, especially since United has announced cuts to its Mileage Plus elite program despite raising the spending requirement by 20% earlier this month. The biggest cut that would affect me is losing the ability to upgrade using miles on p.s. flights, between JFK and LAX/SFO, without paying a fee. Currently, Premier members are exempt from paying the the fee for upgrading with miles, which costs between $75 and $250.1 The exemption to this fee will be cut on February 1, 2015. I do have a revenue flight in early January that involves a SFO-JFK segment on a cheap K fare, and I wonder if I should use miles to secure an upgrade, or if it’s even worth it because it’s a shorter flight than the westbound segment, or whether I should just use those miles to snag a Saver award down the line.

These cuts are exactly why I cut my air travel spending on a single airline for the sake of loyalty. It’s just not worth it.

  1. The fee depends on the booking class of your economy class ticket. The lower your booking class, the higher the upgrade fee. 

United Airlines, or Why Mergers Suck

Tim Wu, the Columbia law professor, candidate for Lieutenant Governor of New York, and celebrity advocate for Net Neutrality, is leaving United Airlines and will presumably never fly them again! Like so many loyal customers, he blames the merger between Continental and United as the primary reason:

The United merger is a grand example of a consumer sinkhole—a merger that proves to be not just a onetime event but an ongoing disaster for consumers (and shareholders) who suffer for years after.

For the most part, I agree!

The merger has made it a lot more expensive to fly in an cramped aluminum tube. It is the biggest reason why I haven’t travelled much this year. And because there’s no chance I will ever get an upgrade, I would be getting a worse product than in the past. In short, passengers like me are getting less for more. That’s exactly why mergers suck, and why you should be on the defensive when a company you like to patronize merges with another. It’s good only for the top executives and the financiers who arrange the unholy union.

Mergers suck as much as this early mashup of Continental Airlines, doing business as United.

Mergers suck as much as this early mashup of Continental Airlines, doing business as United.

The mergers in the airline industry, whereby we now have only three network carriers, has diminished competition. When one company raises prices or reduces the quality of service, another company can follow suit because consumers have no viable alternative. Since Delta merged with Northwest Airlines in 2009, it has implemented all kinds of draconian requirements for attaining elite status, implementing a spending requirement in addition to flying a requisite number of butt-in-seat miles or segments, and tying Delta miles to dollars spent on travel rather than the more logical way of earning miles based on distance travelled. United has followed suit with each of these policies and, earlier this week, even raised the amount of money required for attaining each level of elite status.

But what annoys me the most, and where I disagree with Wu, is that a merger can in fact yield a better experience for a consumer. It might be a case of the grass seeming greener, but from a distance, combining Delta and Northwest has apparently yielded a better product even as it draws the ire of the bean counters. There’s WiFi on almost every flight, and because there’s a first class cabin on just about every plane it flies, you have a better chance at an upgrade.

I have a close family member who works for United, and I worry about the future of the airline in the prolonged wake of this merger. I also miss sitting in Row 9 on flights between JFK and LAX, and I hate schlepping from New Jersey when arrive on a flight to “New York.”

Dear United: It’s Not Me, It’s You

Chart showing that I have flown Zero Premier Qualifying Miles flown and Zero Premier Qualifying Segments flown, with Zero Premier Qualifying Dollars spent in 2014

Summer is almost over, and while in the past I was flying a ton on United, visiting family and friends, this year the situation is very different. I haven’t flown a single revenue flight on United this year.

But it’s not like I have been flying on the other guys, either. My diminished travel is due my trying to save money and because airline consolidation has made flying very expensive. Even on the competitive JFK-LAX route, it’s hard to find a flight for less than $400. Not too long ago, I remember easily finding an “L” fare in February for about $240 roundtrip.

The other thing factor is that flying on United is kind of miserable these days.

Since the merger, they’ve made a lot of cuts. Some I accepted as reducing redundancies, but others changed my whole reasoning for sticking with one airline. They’ve gutted the frequent flyer program for leisure travelers like me. Over the years, United has been following Delta’s lead in making flying less pleasant, such as requiring us qualify with dollars spent on tickets, tying our frequent flyer “mileage earnings” to dollars spent instead of miles flown, taking away our pillows and blankets, and devaluing our miles when we go to redeem them. They could at least follow their lead on the good stuff, too, right? Why not improve the clubs and provide some decent snacks and palatable booze for free? Why not finally add WiFi to the entire mainline fleet? Why not, at the very least, make a goofy safety video?

Last year, I only had a handful of revenue flights before Labor Day: a roundtrip to Louisville, Kentucky and a five-segment vacation/mileage run to Burbank. However, I flew a bunch in the fall to Paducah, to Indianapolis, to Memphis, to Nashville, and a six-segment trip to Burbank (via Washington and San Francisco on the outbound, and via San Francisco and Cleveland on the inbound). All those flights added up qualifying for Silver status, not only with miles but also on segments.

This year, though, I shop around since there’s no point in remaining loyal.

Biking and Eating for Airline Miles

One of the highlights of riding to Montauk last weekend was stopping at Tully’s Lobster in Hampton Bays for a lobster roll. Growing up in California, I am relatively inexperienced when it comes to lobster rolls, as it’s not as much a thing as it is out here, so I can’t tell you if it’s the best lobster roll in the Hamptons. All I know is that I like what I like, and I like the Tully’s roll a lot.

Tully's Lobster Roll

Another bonus to stopping there for lunch, aside from not having to fight hungry and tired cyclists for scraps at the depleted rest stop in Westhampton, was that I earned airline miles for eating there because the Backbay Grille, the restaurant operation at Tully’s, participates in the Rewards Network dining program. A few friends of mine are really into earning miles while we eat, and we each have stories about getting that surprise email informing you that you dined at a participating restaurant a few days.

That’s what happened to me. I had to have a conversation with myself to figure out where I earned these miles:

Where on earth is the Backbay Grille? Did I really eat there on Saturday?

But I rode to Montauk on Saturday….

Oh, right!

As a VIP member, I get five miles per dollar[1]. My twenty-dollar lobster roll, with tax and tip, earned me 118 airline miles, which puts me 1/169th of the way towards a domestic economy-to-business class upgrade. All I had to do was ride almost as many miles on my bike, 101.8 miles apparently, which makes riding for airline miles a pretty terrible deal.

And if that calculation is not bad enough, because I was cycling, I was primarily eating for energy. I don’t want to know how much I paid per calorie.

  1. In the halcyon days of the dot-com bubble, it used to be ten miles per dollar.  ↩

Fool Me Once…

Today is April Fool’s Day. Since yesterday, I’ve been on high alert carefully scrutinizing anything that could be a prank. I usually forget about today—being too preoccupied with this, that, or something else, but this year, I was expecting it so I’ve been fully prepared. Although this heighten skepticism has taken most of the fun out of today, I did get a few choice pranks.

Make a Photo without a Camera

The folks at Lomography, makers of analog film cameras for the hip art-school set, has announced a new spray that will allow you to slowly expose an image onto a roll of film.

I fell for this one at first, partly because I saw it on March 31. It seems completely feasible until you read that it takes up to 24 hours for a decent exposure. I thought that was a typo. But the giveaway in this video was in the time-lapse sequence, where the guy stands with the roll of film in the dark. I’m no expert in Greek, but I know you need light to make a photograph.

Canon Wildlife Camera

Speaking of photography, I saw this announcement come across my RSS feed this morning from The Digital Picture, an expert website for Canon photographers.

Fake Canon 1D W (Wildlife) for April Fool's Day 2014

This is a very compelling prank. A camera like this makes some sense. However, as far as I know, no one has ever made a flagship (D)SLR camera specifically for one application. (Okay, fine, Canon has made two cameras specifically for astrophotography.) As I skimmed the article, I thought it was real, until I realized what day it was.

Bryan, the site’s owner, even included a link to the B&H website so you can pre-order this camera. However, that link takes you to an “April Fool’s” page, revealing that you have been had!

Apple Buys iFixit

A good April Fool’s Prank is one that seems plausible and incredible at the same time. Apple buying the hub for online do-it-yourself repair manuals seems both plausible and incredible. The press release includes some very humorous details, admitting they sold out.

“Everyone has a number”, admitted Kyle Wiens, iFixit’s CEO. “I didn’t think there was a reasonable number that would make me say, ‘You know I was going to change the world with repair documentation but here’s a number.’” In the end, Apple gave us a number that we couldn’t refuse.

I saw this from the spoil-sports at MacRumors, who not only revealed this and other “stories” to be April Fool’s hoaxes, but admitted that they did not intend to “participate” in any prank news stories. That makes sense since some of the rumors they reference are a bit unbelievable, even if some are spot-on.

Hulu Announces New Spin-Offs

Hulu announced two new spin-offs of hit series available on the streaming service, including one where Hannibal gets a cooking show.

The other is, The Field, a spin-off of the critically acclaimed series Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which I haven’t yet seen (shame on me, yes, I know). 

Honestly, I figured out that these spin-offs were fake. However, I was very impressed that they went through the trouble to make two very good looking videos. 

Fake United Jeff’s Improvements for United Airlines

The Twitter account for the fake Jeff Smisek, CEO of United Airlines, is one of the few Twitter feeds I read like a blog, where I scroll back to each tweet until I read them all. Today, he’s been dispatching fake announcements to improve United Airlines, such as this one to solve the labor dispute between the airline and its two sets of pilots (former Continental and former United).

Some, however, are more sensible, so much so that you know that they’re fake.

I really hate the new logo, and I’m not alone.

EFF Reports that MPAA is to Update its Copyright Curriculum for Kindergartners

The Electronic Frontier Foundation sent out a “very special” issue of its newsletter, the EFFector. 

A few of the stories were pretty obvious pranks. For example, they mention an NSA program, IMPENDINGSLUMBER, that is designed to “intercept children’s bedtime stories.” But one was a little too close to reality to be an obvious prank. Here it is in its entirety:

Citing numerous psychological studies that indicate children under the age of eight respond primarily to fear-based cues, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is adding another character to its “Sharing Is Bad” copyright curriculum: the “Fair Use Creep,” a four-headed monster in a trench coat. “We think these children will respond well to characters like the Fair Use Creep,” said MPAA chief Chris Dodd in a press conference Friday. “And by respond well, we mean cower in fear.”

Doesn’t it seem a bit extreme for the motion picture industry to infiltrate children’s curriculum with lessons on copyright maximalism? This must be a joke, right? Sadly, it’s not.

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