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Aug 03

SeatGuru: The Best Website For Choosing A Seat

One of the more stressful parts of booking a trip is choosing seats. Sure, you know that you probably don’t want the window seat in the last row of the plane, right in front of the lavatory. But what other factors do you need to look at? Is your window mis-aligned? Will you have a draft from being near the exit? Do you have space under the seat in front of you? Fortunately, there’s a way to find out.

Using SeatGuru

seatguru

Here, the “yellow” seats on this Delta regional jet have misaligned windows.

One of the most popular websites for travel, and one that every beginner traveler (or experienced, for that matter) should know about is SeatGuru. The site is an online user collaboration (now owned by TripAdvisor) that ranks the best, worst and averagest seats on a plane.* The code is straightforward: Green is a good seat, red is a bad one and yellow is one that may or may not have a characteristic that affects you. I don’t mind a mis-aligned window, but somebody else might.

Over the years, the site has added a number of features. It now gives you full dimensions on the seats, as well as photos and traveler comments. The most useful bit may be where it lists the in-flight amenities, which can tell you at a glance whether you will have power, internet, etc. If you’re in a premium class of service, it will give you details on the seats recline, such as whether it has full lie-flat seats or the dreaded “lie-flat at an angle (Your seat is flat, but is not at a 180-degree angle, meaning that you are sleeping on a slant.).”

Virtually every airline that you would fly, as well as several that you wouldn’t, is covered, and you’ll have no trouble finding your fleet type. So now you know, and won’t get stuck in the “secretly bad” seat. Have a great flight!

 


*Beginner’s Hint: Be careful when selecting your seat on the airline’s seat map. Those green seats are green for a reason. The airline may want to charge you extra for it. Most carriers are good about labeling which seats have an extra charge, but keep your eyes on the price tag, just in case.

 

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Aug 02

Don’t Let Systems Outages Ruin Your Trip

Late last night/early this morning, British Airways suffered yet another computer outage, which marks approximately the 473rd in the past six months. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It was the sixth in the last year and lasted under an hour, as opposed to the failure that took the airline down in May, but it was still enough to cause mayhem for the airline and its passengers. And if you don’t think that you could someday be the victim of an outage, you’ve never used a computer. There’s not always a lot you can do at the time, but here are a few ideas to help you stay ahead.

Before The Outage

Even the airport knows.                                                               Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Obviously, you’ll never know in advance when an outage will occur, so you should count on the preparation that you take before the flight.* If you get lucky, you’ll still be at home when the computers go down and can sit in your living room and wait on hold.

At The Airport

It could be worse. You could be here.

Few people get lucky, of course, meaning that you’ll most likely be at the airport when the world goes dark. The first thing that everyone will do is rush to the nearest agent. Sadly, those agents will be overwhelmed and have their hands full calling other airlines and trying to re-book passengers. A member of your party should wait in line, just in case, but keep in mind that it could be next Tuesday before they get to the front. In the meantime:

  • Your first step should be your airline’s airport lounge, if one exists. Lounges are a good thing on a normal day. When things go wrong, they’re a lifeline to the best agents in the system. If you don’t have access, you may be able to buy a day pass. It’ll be worth every penny of the $50 or so that you will pay.
  • Call your airline’s 800 number. It should be speed-dialed into your phone so you don’t have to take time to look it up. If the power is down across the system, the phone lines will be jammed, as well, but you might as well have a second outlet.
  • Call the credit card company where you booked your flight. You may have travel interruption insurance, although it could just give you a refund. It may not buy you a new ticket on another airline.
  • Wild card: social media. If you have Twitter access, you can DM the airline, but they’re likely tied up with other customers. Still, it can’t hurt.
  • Know your rights, especially if you are dealing with a European carrier. You might be entitled to some cash.
  • Settle in and get comfortable. It could be a while.

The Bottom Line

Airlines spend a small fortune on their systems and back-ups, but computers happen. The best that you can do is prepare ahead of time, take whatever steps you can and hope that it gets fixed quickly.

 


*Beginner’s Hint: You do take five minutes to prepare before your flight, right? If not, it’s time to start. You spent a fortune on the ticket, so protect your investment. Here’s what you need to do: Verify what you can ahead of time and check with the airline ahead of time to make sure your flight is on time. Pack plenty of extra snacks, games for kids, empty water bottles, etc., just in case. Most importantly, look for alternative flights, both on your airline and on others, in case yours is cancelled. 

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Aug 01

Credit Cards That Let You Fly With A Friend For Free

There’s nothing better than using miles for free but companion tickets, which allow you to bring a friend along for free (or almost free), are almost as good. Naturally, there’s a credit card for that.

The Usual Disclosure: This post will discuss credit cards. You can get many of these and other cards through the Credit Cards for Charity page. Any commissions that I receive will be donated to charity.

A Free Domestic Companion

companion ticket

Flying with a friend should always be like this                           Photo Source: Creative Commons

With apologies to British Airways, whose credit card can also get you a free companion ticket, I’m going to talk about a few domestic carriers whose plastic will allow you to bring a companion along for free (albeit sometimes with minimum spend required). Let’s take a look at who gets you what.

Alaska Air/Virgin America

The credit card from Alaska Air is a little different than some of the others. The Visa Signature offers you a free companion ticket the first year you have it but, each year after that, the companion will cost you $99, plus fees. There are no blackout dates on the ticket.

And even Platinum Plus members get a little something, earning a $50 flight credit on their card anniversaries.

American Airlines

Not one, but two cards through American will get you a companion ticket. You may not know of either card, however.

If you’re a business owner, look at the CitiBusiness card. The current bonus to sign up is only 30,000 miles, so you may want to wait on that one. When you get it, however, you will get an annual $99 companion certificate.

American’s merger with US Airways caused a problem for the banks issuing AA credit cards. AA’s relationship had been with Citi, while US Airways’ had been with Barclays. The problem was solved, however, by allowing both to issue a card, each with different attributes.

The Aviator Silver is not one that you can apply for. You must first get the Aviator Red card and then upgrade to Silver after an undetermined period of time. The card costs $195 per year and has a number of benefits, one of which is a $99 companion ticket each year that you spend $30,000.

Delta

Delta offers a true companion ticket with its Platinum and Reserve cards, which will run you $195 and $495 annually, respectively. The seats are, however, available only in certain fare buckets and may not be available on every flight. Still, a free ticket is a free ticket.

Southwest

Southwest Airlines offers the ultimate goodie: A companion pass.

A companion pass is just what it sounds like: for the duration of your status, which you earn by flying 100 segments or earning 110,000 Rapid Rewards points in a calendar year, you get to bring along your favorite companion, free of charge (Yes, you do have limited opportunities to change your companion if you get a new favorite person.). The Rapid Rewards points you get from the sign-up bonus count, as do any that you earn from the credit card. Sadly, points transferred from other programs no longer count toward the CP.

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Jul 31

Travel Like A Millennial (Whether You Want To Or Not)

Where we attempt to answer the question “Just how many brands does a lodging company need?”

Tru by Hilton (And Other Stuff)

tru by hilton

Double point promo available, but should I be nervous that they have to tell me that the sheets are “fresh?” Isn’t that just assumed?

I got an email from Hilton today reminding me that they recently launched their 13th brand, Tru by Hilton. 13 brands seems like a lot to me, although Marriott has 30 if you include those that it acquired from Starwood.

Tru is one of Hilton’s shots at Millennials. We’ve seen this before. A few days ago, I wrote about Air France’s absolutely ridiculous “airline with an airline” Joon. After realized that Millennials hate to be coerced by brands, Air France created a brand especially for them, thus missing the point entirely. Tru has done the same thing. While AF described its creation as “a lifestyle brand and a state of mind. Short, punchy and international…,” Tru has taken the cheese and absolutely run with it:

 

Say hello to a brand-new hotel experience from Hilton that’s vibrant, affordable and young-at-heart. It’s energetic, yet relaxing and comfortable. It’s familiar, and it’s also unexpected. It’s completely unprecedented, it’s distinctively Tru.

I’m not sure that I want the unexpected when I’m traveling but, then again, I’m not a Millennial.

Tru is clearly aimed at the entry level, which is certainly a good thing. But the company went one better, by couching its attributes in the language “fun” and “social responsibility.” Again, not a bad thing, but let’s see what you get:

What They Say                                                                                                           What They Mean

“smaller, more efficiently designed rooms”                                                           “small rooms”

“Hang your items in the open closet or colorful wall hooks”                             “no closets. hooks.”

“Looking for desk space? Head down to the lobby…”                                        “no desks”

“Work, play games, lounge or eat in (the lobby)”                                                “buy stuff”

etc.

I Kid Because I Love

We’re holding our meetings in the lobby because there are no desks in the room. But we love it because they told us to!”                                               Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Okay, I kid Hilton. And they have certainly hit on a few ideas. For example, in the shower, soap and shampoo are in canisters on the wall, not in little plastic containers. While that does prevent you from stealing the shampoo, it also saves a ton of waste. Less space also means more rooms per building which should, in theory, cut down on costs, although most rates that I saw costs about $150 per night. Hey, at least the returns will be great for the hotel owner.*

The Bottom Line

There’s certainly nothing wrong with new brands, particularly at the lower end, where the major hotel companies don’t have as much to offer. But let’s cool it with the hipster-speak, okay?

 


*Beginner’s Hint: Most major lodging companies own very few of their actual hotels. Rather, there is an individual hotel owner who pays a percentage of revenues to the parent for managing the property, using the name, running reservations, etc.

 

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Jul 29

US Government Mandates Higher Ticket Prices

An advocacy group has successfully won an appeal, forcing the FAA to take another look at the size of seats on airplanes.

Why That’s Bad

 

That just doesn’t look comfy, but it does look cheap.                        Photo Credit: Creative Commons

I know the arguments. Seat sizes have been getting smaller for ages. It’s uncomfortable. People are getting air ragey. I understand that and don’t like the smaller seats, either.

But this argument regarding airline safety is simply a red herring. It has nothing to do with safety. It’s all about comfort. The seats have been tested and most flights offer bigger seats should you need one. You just have to pay for them.  As for the “getting out of the seats in case of an accident” argument? I think we’re past that. So here’s what will happen if we get laws regulating a minimum seat size:

  • Coach passengers will get another two inches or so.
  • Airlines will have fewer seats available to sell.
  • Ticket prices will go up.
  • Fewer people will be able to fly.

Sadly, travelers can’t have it both ways. We can’t complain about ticket prices and then also complain that the seats and service aren’t good enough. Costs per seat will go up and ultra-low cost carriers will be forced out of business, or to raise prices (which will force them out of business). The major airlines will simply raise their prices even more.

According to this article, “Critics accuse the airlines of being more interested in profit than passenger health and safety.” That’s not only wrong but patently stupid. Wanna know a quick way to bankrupt an airline? Show that it’s not safe. People have no issue driving 80 MPH on the way to the airport (and there will be more people on the roads if fewer people are traveling on planes) but the minute an airline is declared unsafe, its customers will desert it (as they should).

As for airlines caring about profits? Of course they do. They’re businesses with shareholders, not government-run utilities. The average traveler has shown that the number one factor in choosing a flight is price. Ultra-low cost carriers are growing capacity by double digits.

Airlines must be safe, but the system is currently the safest in the world. The government cannot mandate comfort. And it’s worth noting that the airlines already do offer seats with plenty of leg room, but most people don’t want to pay the price to sit up front (and again, I don’t blame them). But if there were demand for the product, airlines would offer it

The long-term trend in airline prices has been down. There are certainly years, such as this one, that they have been up, but passengers are paying a lot less to fly now than they did before deregulation. And ultimately, that’s good for everyone.

 

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Jul 28

Tidbits I Learned Yesterday

I picked up a few different bits and pieces over the past 24 hours which might just be fun to pass along. That’s all.

The “Secret” JetBlue Phone Number

Shh! Although a Google search gets you the number.                  Photo Credit: Creative Commons

I’m a big fan of JetBlue’s Mint product and, one day, will actually write the review of the product that I keep talking about. Mint is their attempt to push into the business class market and has been more of a success than anyone anticipated. Some of the benefits are really useful, such as the lie-flat seats, while others are kind of goofy, such as the massage function on your chair.

Best as I can tell, however, JetBlue is the only US carrier that gives you a private number to call if you book their premium class service (I know that BA did it at one time, but it may have disappeared with every other BA amenity, as they focus on becoming the worst carrier in the world.). Every airline has special numbers for their elite members, but Flying Mint and got any questions? No problem, you have an exclusive outlet.

Not as cool as the old 800-RENOAIR, which allowed you to skip the queue at American and speak to the first available agent, but secrets are fun.

The Ride Share Company with A Loyalty Program

There are two national ride sharing programs, Uber and Lyft, along with local ones in most major cities.

Fasten, though, is the only one that I know of with its own rewards program (Other programs, such as Uber, allow you to earn points with partners.). Fasten’s differentiating factor is that it’s driver-focused, since it only charges its drivers a dollar per ride, but they’re struggled to generate traction.

Their program is simple: Take ten rides and they’ll give you $5 off the next one. That’s not huge. For example, if you average $15 per ride, your $5 reward is only about 3% back. But that’s on top of anything you earn with your credit card.

The service is good and the prices are competitive. It’s worth a shot.

BankDirect Caution

RASM

American was the first to go positive

The easiest way to generate American miles without flying is through BankDirect. Instead of paying you interest, they give you American Airlines miles based on your balances with them. The downside is that they charge a $12 per month fee for their checking account, regardless of your account size.

Several months ago, I realized that they weren’t charging me the $12 monthly fee. At first, I thought it was because of my good looks, but they’re an internet bank, so that wasn’t it.

Last night I found out the reason: If you have no customer-generated activity for six months, the account goes dormant. You still get your miles, but you have to call to have the account reactivated. Sounds great, right?

Turns out that it’s only great for a little while. If you go three years without activity, they’ll escheat your money to the state of Texas. Yes, that word sounds like what it means. Bottom line: Keep an eye on your account.

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Jul 27

Travel Security Update

Oh covfefe! The TSA is at it again. Airport officials noted that lines were moving too quickly, so the “security” agency announced new checkpoint rules, just to keep us on our toes.

“Please Take Potential Explosives Out Of Your Bags…”

“Look out, that piece of paper could be a bomb!”                          Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Add your smaller electronics to the list of items that need to come out of your bag as the TSA looks for more invented threats.* Over the next several weeks, the TSA will be phasing in regulations that make you remove any electronics larger than a cell phone from your bag and place it in a tray by itself. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

The increased security measures come amid a potential threat from explosives that can be hidden inside electronics. During training of TSA officers from across the country at a federal facility in Brunswick, GA, the trainees are taught that some explosives are as thin as a sheet and can be disguised as a letter in an envelope. They can be liquid or solid, granules, powder or have the texture of cake frosting.

Paper and powder and cake frosting oh my! If that’s the case, I’m staying away from office supply stores. I already knew the danger of frosting,** but didn’t realize that libraries are full of potential explosives. And while I have no doubt that the two week boot camp that new TSOs attend (I think it’s really cute that they get to pretend to be soldiers and recite their mission statement every day. That occurs sometime between nap time and Duck Duck Goose.) teaches them everything they need to know about identifying a bomb hidden in my iPad, I’ve gotten tired of this agency that seems to exist for the sole purpose of self-perpetuation.

The plus side to all of this (or at least the lack of a downside): There’s no indication that the new policy will apply to pre-check travelers.

 


*Truthfully, I have no idea whether a Kindle could be turned into a bomb. I imagine it could. What I do know, though, is that the TSO inspecting your bag isn’t going to be the one to catch it and the whole procedure will distract employees from the search for more dangerous items, like shampoo.

**On the plus side, these cupcakes (the munitions in question) are the best damned cupcakes I’ve ever eaten and will likely be on my “last meal list” if I ever find myself on death row.

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Jul 26

The Problem With Low Cost Carriers…

Low Cost Carriers (LCCs), whether they’re Southwest or Spirit, are good for the airline industry. They keep costs down for passengers and allow you to pay for what you need.

The Problem Is…

That’s either an Allegiant Air route map or the country has Measles.

There’s one big problem with LCCs, though. When something goes wrong, you have fewer options. Most (Southwest is an exception.) LCCs have only one or two flights per day between destinations, and don’t tend to connect passengers, meaning that, if your flight is cancelled for whatever reason, you could be stuck. Unlike major carriers, who have agreement with the other major carriers, the low cost airlines will usually not pay to put you on another carrier. So if you face a mechanical issue, for instance, at a busy time of year, you might find yourself waiting two or three days to get to your vacation or get home from it.

Don’t believe me? Check out this story from Flyertalk. Passengers had to wait at least four days to catch a flight home to Oklahoma City, about 1,100 miles away. You might think that Las Vegas is not the worst place to be stuck, until you read this reaction from one of the passengers:

“We are all just trapped here now at the airport in Las Vegas,” passenger Alana Buckner told Oklahoma City ABC affiliate KOCO. “They asked us to deplane, we all got off of the plane. They gave us some soda and then said that they regretted to inform us that unfortunately there’s no other flights until Thursday. No money to eat, no flights, all of the cars are gone, no rental cars. We have no hotel room.”

Ouch. So much for renting a car and driving home. In this case, the passengers got lucky. The story hit the press and the passengers got compensation. But there are thousands of flights that don’t get that kind of publicity. Be prepared.

 

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Jul 25

JetBlue Business Plan Continues To Evolve

When it comes to the in-flight experience, I think JetBlue has one of the best. When it comes to rewards programs, I think JetBlue has one of the best. And when it comes to credit cards, they definitely have the best. But there’s one area in which they seem a little less consistent. And that isn’t a bad thing.

JetBlue Tweeks Business Plan

Earning profits as an airline is notoriously difficult, and JetBlue has done an admirable job. The airline has made money in every year since (and including) 2009, a feat that legacy carriers have struggled to match. It began as a “low cost carrier,” with less expensive fares but the same, or better, amenities (The airline had considered gourmet meals instead of televisions when it first began. Good call on the TVs.). It had traditionally viewed itself as a leisure carrier but, as the airline expanded and overlapped with increasing amounts of competition, it responded by adding a Mint premium product and offering free internet access. It did reduce seat pitch by a few inches, but the airline remains the most spacious in coach.

JetBlue’s ability to anticipate consumer demands has allowed the airline not only to survive but actually to grow.* Its Mint product (which I will do a review of shortly) has been a home run and it has invaded other traditionally business markets, such as the New York – Boston shuttle, which it serves with an all-coach product.

Old Is The New Blue

A photo of the new cabin. Looks a lot like the old cabin, only bluer.

JetBlue reported its quarterly earnings today, and two items stood out as a continuation of the “transition to a mixed business-leisure” airline. In particular:

  • The airline cut back growth just a bit. With ATC issues clogging up the skies in the northeast (2/3 of JFK flights, for instance, were affected by delay programs in the second quarter), it pulled back a bit on its expansion plans. Instead of growing 5.5-7.5% this year, the airline will grow 5.5-6.5%. While that seems like only a slight change, every bit of growth matters in the airline industry.
  • The airline is continuing to concentrate on its focus cities. A focus city is one in which the airline concentrates its capacity, similar to the concept of an airline’s hub.** Most of JetBlue’s new flights are into either Boston or Fort Lauderdale, two key focus cities. In fact, over the past five years, 97% of growth has touched either New York, Boston or Fort Lauderdale, and 92% have been into the latter two cities.

The Bottom Line

Things will get tougher for the airline going forward. Competitors no longer view it as the cute little upstart, but rather, as a real player. The airline has always shown the ability to innovate to meet demand. Let’s hope that it continues to do so.

 


*Beginner’s Hint: Counterintuitively, growing faster actually helps an airline reduce costs. A large percentage of costs for an airline are fixed, meaning that you have to pay them whether the plane has passengers or not. Those costs don’t grow even if the airline does. For example, if the airline grows 10%, you don’t need to add another 10% of a CEO. If you add seats to the airplane, the rent expense for that plane doesn’t change. Etc.

**Beginner’s Hint: Even if you don’t know exactly what a “hub” is, you’ve likely flown through one. Airline hubs are cities where the airline has very high market share and connects a lot of passengers. For example, Delta airlines has hubs in Minneapolis, Detroit, Salt Lake City and Atlanta so, if you are flying them, there’s a good chance that you will have a connecting flight in one of those cities. It’s not cost-effective for an airline to fly passengers from, say, Phoenix to Providence; there simply aren’t enough people flying those routes. But if you can fly them from Phoenix to Atlanta, and then put them on another plane with all the other passengers who have been collected in Atlanta to fly to Providence, it becomes much more efficient.

JetBlue is a “point to point” carrier, which means that it does not connect many passengers. Instead, it concentrates on “focus cities” and flies you non-stop from there. The major focus cities for JetBlue are Boston, New York and Fort Lauderdale. Feel free to email me if you have any questions about the difference between the two.

 

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Jul 24

Sometimes, You’re Just Better Off Leaving Things Well Enough Alone…

One of the things that I like most about writing a travel blog is that I’m constantly coming across stories that make me want to do this:

This.

So let’s see what’s new in the world of “Weird News Olympics.”

The Bronze Medal: The Airport Of The Future

The airport of the PRESENT. The Enchanted Gardens, at Singapore’s Changi Airport

Every so often, I see one of these “Airport of the Future” articles. They’re always a fun read, mostly because they make fantastical predictions about what the world of airports will look like in the future. We’ll all be shipped to the airport on autonomous vehicles, breeze through security because they’ll already know everything about us (Creepy, much?) and get our free massages from robots while we shop duty free.

Sadly, those are all just fantasies, for two reasons. First, space. All of these hopes and dreams require a ton of land, and nobody wants to be the one to pay for it. It would either have to be done by a central government or a private enterprise, and the internal conflicts would be enormous. Second, however, is security. We’ve all become so indoctrinated in the idea of physically invasive security that I’m not entirely sure that people would travel without it. But don’t worry, there are enough lobbyists to ensure sufficient metal detectors for all. Until the security wizards cease their unhealthy, singular obsession with airports, the best we can hope for is clean, friendly and efficient. Oh, speaking of security…

The Silver Medal: The War on Paper

The newest airport issue has become the war on paper. And the TSA at San Diego decided to charge full speed ahead this week by (possibly) prohibiting books, including comic books, from checked luggage. Now, that might be a problem on most weekends, but it was particularly bad on this one, given that Comic-Con was taking place. Guess what they have a lot of at Comic-Con? Yup. Apparently, United Airlines told people that books were banned in luggage, courtesy of the TSA.

The TSA has issued a press release denying that it ever put out such an order, so we’re kind of in limbo as to who is to blame. But I do get nervous when I read that too much paper triggers an alarm. Sadly, yes, this is where we are going.

So here’s my question: We may not be able to pack books. And we have instances of books shutting down the security lines. So be prepared to take a Kindle.

First seen: VFTW

The Gold Medal: Air France

You know that if something is able to defeat the TSA in the craziness olympics, it has to be good. And our friends at Air France managed to pull it off.

Airlines have a long and glorious history of destroying economic value. The old joke, “How do you make a million dollars in the airline industry? Start with a billion.” has always been a favorite and, generally, has held true. And the best way to destroy value is to create an “airline within an airline,” in an attempt to bring your costs down or appeal to the cool crowd. Does anyone remember Song? How about Ted? Didn’t think so. There’s a reason for that.

And yet, airlines keep trying, with this iteration from Air France. The airline is launching Joon, which sounds like the French word “jeune,” meaning young. It’s targeting millennials, who are notoriously fickle and brand-phobic. Air France described the division as “a lifestyle brand and a state of mind,” and called it Joon because the name means “short, punchy and international.” Apparently, it is cool because it is blue.

Do you know what millennials hate more than brands? It’s brands that pretend not to be brands to appeal to millennials. Fortunately, I’m guessing that they’re not going to have to deal with Joon for long.

 

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