So you want to be a frequent flier? (Part 1)

This is a guest post from Adam Kraus, a Premier-Platinum flyer on United/Continental who specializes in HNL-LAX and HNL-SFO, plus frequently travels through DEN, ORD, and BWI. He also is an Emerald Executive with National and has Gold status with Hilton. In his free time, Adam is a Hubble Fellow at the University of Hawaii who works on star and planet formation.

If you get a group of astronomers together, then sooner or later it seems like the discussion always turns to travel. We travel a lot, and we usually have to work at the other end of each trip. In the modern era of full flights, uncomfortable seats, and terrible airline food, that can lead to a lot of painful days (and nights) at 35 thousand feet. However, travel doesn’t have to be terrible experience, as long as you learn how to play the frequent flier game.

Back when I first started traveling, I couldn’t help noticing the people cutting across the terminal to special lounges while running for my flight, or stowing their bags in first class while I was trudging back toward the cattle car. Many of them had business attire, fancy roll-aboards, and suitcases. However, I also noticed the people in shorts and flip flops who were stowing backpacks (and sometimes poster tubes!) in those spacious overhead bins. The purpose of this series is to help you become one of those people: the frequent flying astronomer. Future posts will be about elite status and reward programs but let’s start with choosing an airline.

Part 1: Where do I sign up?

The modern travel industry has provided us with plenty of options for our travel needs. Priceline, Expedia, Kayak—it’s never been easier to plan a trip with the lowest bidder. This approach is great for the occasional traveler. However, it also encourages the bad habit of shopping our business to many companies, squeezing every dollar on a trip-by-trip basis rather than considering short-term productivity gains and long-term savings. The first step in becoming a frequent flier is to break this habit.

I talk to a lot of people who are already convinced that they should become frequent fliers, but don’t know where to start. This first post in the series will help those people establish their priorities and choose the best airline for them. There are a few main drivers for this decision: Where are you flying from? Where are you flying to? Are there any special features that you really care about? What kind of rewards do you want? With a clear outline of the options, you should be able to choose the airline that’s best for you.

Let’s address each of these questions in turn…

A. Where are you flying from?

Most airports have at least a few flights from most of the major airlines, so you probably won’t be locked into a single option from the start. However, many airports are dominated by 1-2 major airlines that use the airport as a hub. If you want scheduling flexibility and the option for direct flights, then there is a compelling argument for signing up with whichever airline is based out of your airport.

The major hubs for each airline in the US are:

  • United-Continental: Washington (Dulles), Chicago (O’Hare), San Francisco, Denver, Los Angeles, New York (Newark), Cleveland, Houston.
  • American: Dallas/Forth Worth, Miami, Chicago (O’Hare), New York (JFK Intl, LGA domestic), Los Angeles.
  • Delta: Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, New York (JFK), Minneapolis-St Paul, Detroit, Memphis.
  • US Airways: Phoenix, Charlotte, Philadelphia.

(If you don’t see your airport in this list, check its wikipedia page. Most of the entries for major airports list all of the airlines that serve that airport, and the destinations. Look for the airline with the long list, and there’s your major airline.)

Some of these choices are clear winners. Delta dominates the Atlanta market so heavily that if you’re based out of Georgia, you almost have to choose them. The same can be said for United-Continental in Denver or Houston, US Airways in Phoenix, and American in Dallas or Miami. In other cases, you have several potential choices. Los Angeles is served equally well by American and by United-Continental, with fairly good representation by Delta as well. Ditto for San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington DC. Finally, you should note that several airlines didn’t make the list, most notably Jet Blue and Southwest Airlines. The omission is deliberate, and brings us to the next question…

B. Where are you flying to?

Your most frequent destinations should also guide your decision. I would argue that this criterion eliminates Southwest and Jet Blue, since neither airline flies outside the continental USA. International travel includes the most arduous trips: 12 hours from the West Coast to Europe, or 16 to Australia! Even travel to Hawaii takes 6 hours from California, 8 from Chicago, and 9 from the east coast. If you want to fly in first or business on these long-haul flights, you have to build your status using the shorter flights.

However, there are also some less obvious considerations related to your frequent travel destinations:

South America. WINNER: American. If you travel to Chile for observing runs, then United-Continental and US Airways are very poor choices. Not only do they not serve Chile, but they don’t even partner with other airlines for code-share. As a United flier, if I want to travel to Chile, then I have to travel from Honolulu to Washington-Dulles to Sao Paulo, then switch to a South American airline for the last leg. With American, you can connect directly to Santiago from Miami, Dallas, or Los Angeles.

Hawaii. WINNERS: United, then American. The situation for Hawaii is less dire, but there is still a clear hierarchy. United-Continental operates direct flights to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Houston, and Newark, including flights directly to the Big Island for most of them. American serves Honolulu from Dallas and Los Angeles, and the Big Island from Los Angeles. In contrast, US Airways connects most Hawaii fliers via Phoenix, and while Delta has some flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco, most connect through Salt Lake City.

Asia. WINNER: United. This is the international market where United-Continental has a clear advantage, though American and Delta are making up ground.

Europe. This matters less, since you can fly to any major European hub and connect fairly easily. However, you might still choose your US airline based on its local partner. American is partnered with British Airways, so they might be preferred for flights to Heathrow. Similarly, United and US Airways are partnered with Lufthansa, so they might be preferred for Germany (especially Frankfurt and Munich). If you fly to a specific country, then it’s worthwhile to check the Wikipedia article on their national airline to determine who they partner with.

C. Special features for each airline.

Finally, some airlines have specific features that specific fliers value. These can take the form of comfort amenities (such as preferred seating or easy upgrades), productivity aids (on-board internet and power), or leisure bonuses (frequent or convenient award flights). Many of these features can only be used by those with frequent flier status, so you need to concentrate your travel in order to access them.

Preferred Seating. Most airlines reserve the exit row seats (which have extra legroom) for their frequent fliers. If you’re relatively tall, there can be quite a premium on getting access to those seats. However, some also go a step further. United maintains a special section (called Economy Plus, or E+) that is open to any frequent flier, and can comprise as much as half of the economy cabin on some international flights. These seats typically resemble normal economy, but with 4-5 extra inches of legroom compared to normal economy seating. Jetblue and many European airlines also offer “Premium Economy”, in which the seat itself is also larger, though they typically charge a premium for these seats.

For more details on the seats for specific aircraft and airlines, see Seatguru.

Upgrades. United and Delta are distinguished by offering unlimited upgrades on domestic flights for their frequent fliers who have at least the first tier of status. United offers these upgrades within all of North America and Hawaii, while Delta excludes Hawaii, but includes some parts of South America. Every frequent flier on a flight is automatically added to a list, and then any unsold first-class seats are given to those fliers in order of status. As a result, top-status fliers can expect to spend most of their time in first class and even first-tier fliers can see significant upgrades on less traveled routes. Personally, I’ve seen upgrade success rates of ~1/4 as a first-tier flier (25k miles) and ~2/3 as a second-tier flier (50k miles) on flights between the mainland and Hawaii.

American and US Airways follow a different strategy, where fliers are given a certain number of upgrade credits, and those credits can be redeemed for upgrades. Since the number of credits is significantly smaller than the number of flights, then fliers typically have fewer upgrades. However, the more limited number of requests means that any upgrade that is requested is more likely to be approved.

Expedited Security and Check-In. Many airlines maintain special elites-only security lines, and even entire terminals, in the airports where they have a significant presence. Anybody with frequent flier status can bypass the normal check-in areas, using the elites-only areas where there are rarely lines for check-in and they have a special bypass that takes you to the front of the security line. The entire experience is painless and takes no more than 15 minutes, a stark contrast to the hour or more that normal check-in can require. Not every airport has this service for every airline, so you might want to check for it at your local airport.

Internet and Power. US carriers have very uneven internet and even power availability in their fleet. United only provides power in first class throughout their fleet, while American has power availability in economy for most aircraft. American and Delta have begun deploying wireless internet to their fleet, while United will only start this deployment in mid-2012. These features are likely to become more widespread in the future, but their current status provides a proxy for the general willingness of an airline to upgrade its in-cabin service. Detailed descriptions for cabin amenities can be found at Seatguru.

My Choice

So, how did I make my choice? For me, Economy Plus on United was a clear winner. A typical E+ seat has 5 more inches of legroom than standard economy seats, and leaves 2-3 inches between my knees and the seat in front of me. You do the math. Of course, it also helps that United is one of the major players for both the sites where I’ve been located so far (Los Angeles and Honolulu), including flights between the two.

Stay tuned for future installments in this series about reaching, maintaining, and making the most of elite status and reward programs. Also check out the Airline Guide Wiki page where we’ll be summarizing this series of posts.

How did you choose your airline? Still struggling with making a choice? Share in the comments.

(Updated 2012 Feb 22 to add link to Wiki.)

25 comments… add one
  • David R Feb 17, 2012 @ 8:57

    If I remember correctly, Copa airlines is partnered with United/Continental. They are based in Panama, but have flights to Chile. So you can probably use that to fly to South America. I did so for AAS: Santiago-Panama-Houston-Austin. I still prefer the American/LAN partnership, though, as it has somewhat more direct flights and to travel within Chile it’s best to use LAN.

  • John O'Meara Feb 17, 2012 @ 10:11

    It should be noted that the post-merger version of Mileage Plus that takes effect March 1 begins to completely screw anyone who is a sub-1k flier on united. If you were premier exec before, you got 100% bonus miles on flights, and that’s being chopped to 50% Also, the upgrade hierarchy is being changed. Finally, and this is the big ouch: if you’re only premier, you cant choose an E+ seat at booking anymore. You have to hope there’s spots free (I forget if it’s 24, or 48 hours out).

    For Chile, I try to go United to Lima then switch to LAN. American has never really let me use my miles for anything without also paying cash, so I took all 300,000 miles in my American account and used to turn them into Amazon gift certs. mmmmmm, big TV.

  • Tanya Feb 18, 2012 @ 16:53

    I don’t know if becoming a frequent flying astronomer is such a worthy dream. Yes attending conferences is important, yes seeing people eye to eye is important. But in an era where our carbon footprint is enormous, we should reconsider so much air travel.
    Can I do the observation via remote observing?
    Could I do this meeting in a videocon?
    Do I really need to travel to Australia, when I can see the collaborators at another meeting 2 months later closer?
    Those are all the questions we should be, in my opinion, asking ourselves.
    Please take a look at:

    • D Feb 19, 2012 @ 17:17

      Absolutely. It should be very rare for an astronomer to achieve, say, premier executive status on United, let alone 1K. I have collaborators I’ve productively worked with for years without ever meeting, and although it would be nice to meet them in person some day, it’s scarcely important for our work.

      And I do most of my observing remotely. I think it’s good to go to an observatory once to get a feel for how it works, but unless you’re doing a really specialized setup, you shouldn’t have to go to that observatory again. I realize that many observatories don’t allow this, but I don’t know why. You’re just sitting at a computer controlling the telescope when you’re there, that’s just as easy to do thousands of miles away.

      That said, I’d bet at least half my carbon footprint is air travel. Even though, despite nearly all my travel being on United, I’ve never achieved even Premier status (and I still feel guilty about the climate impact…). So really, every time you plan a trip, ask yourself if you really need to go.

    • D Feb 19, 2012 @ 17:20

      And note that I say all this as someone who cannot sleep on planes, at all, in economy. One time circumstances led to me flying business on an intercontinental flight, and actually getting a great night’s sleep on the fully reclining chair. I know that’s nice. But it’s not worth it in terms of price or environmental impact.

    • Adam Feb 19, 2012 @ 18:11

      I totally agree on remote observing – with Keck, you aren’t even on the mountain for “on-site” observing, and you interact with the OA via Polycom. It’s worthwhile to visit the observatory periodically in order to catch up on news and interact with the staff, but not more than once or twice a year. Conferences, TAC meetings, and the like might be harder. There’s an element of “offline” communication there even in the core mission, plus you would lose out on all the networking that occurs after-hours.

      I think that really brings us to the key point here – networking is important, and that’s something that really is best done face-to-face. The networking is especially important for grad students and postdocs, who I think comprise a large fraction of the frequent-flying astronomers (and perhaps the Astrobetter reader base as well?).

      Since reducing air travel is going to have career consequences, maybe the way to go is with offsets or something. I was actually party to a recent conversation on this topic, and somebody pointed out that carbon offsets are really cheap. However, I suspect most astronomers have no clue how to go about buying good ones. If anybody knows how these work, then I think it would be a great topic for another guest post…

    • Ben Feb 20, 2012 @ 0:38

      Generally, I agree that minimizing air travel is a good thing. Because of carbon loads, but also because flying is a pain in the neck – just look at how much mental energy is spent on frequent flyer benefits to put a band-aid on the fact that air travel is a pain in the neck and wastes your time.

      Some kinds of flying are hard to avoid. Some instruments or types of observing are hard to do remotely, and the remote observing systems that do exist took a lot of funding to set up. Eliminating departmental colloquia would make everyone more isolated. However, my experience with a TAC done by telecon was that it was just about as good as face-to-face, and significantly less hassle.

      Conferences are hard to duplicate and especially for junior or less prominent people, you need to go to meetings and talk to people in person. In my opinion, it’s actually bigwigs and not junior scientists who spend the most time flying from invite to invite, meetings, review panels, and so on.

      So my point: don’t eliminate air travel, but DO IT WISELY. For example, don’t go to a conference where you give a talk and stay for only a day or two, cutting out early because you have somewhere else to be. This deprives all the other conference attendees of that valuable face-to-face experience with you, right? I wish that conference organizers could get together and blackball attendees who habitually skip out.

    • nick Feb 21, 2012 @ 5:07

      Flight was not always as cheap as it is now, and it probably won’t be for ever. It would be nice from a financial standpoint alone (leaving aside the morality of climate change concerns) if we could have parallel discussions about how to move as a community toward minimizing our travel rather than just deciding that it’s necessary and trying to maximize our comfort. Flying around this much, in the current financial climate (and the actual climate), feels to me like a slowly developing problem that we shouldn’t be blind to. The fact that at least a few astronomers, let alone general public, are uneasy with this amount of travel should raise some low-level alarms.

      The low energy astro thing seems like a nice start.

  • K Feb 19, 2012 @ 11:23

    Adam, this is awesome! Thanks so much! I’m excited about the next installment!

    South Africa (for those using SAAO) – Delta partners with South African airways and has a nice flight from Atlanta to Cape Town.

  • Andrew Feb 19, 2012 @ 14:56

    Don’t knock “the bad habit of shopping our business to many companies, squeezing every dollar on a trip-by-trip basis.” If you’re charging your travel to a grant, you *should* be thinking about cost. I generally buy the cheapest ticket that is compatible with my schedule constraints (and the Fly America Act) because I would feel very self-indulgent if I were spending my fellow citizens’ tax dollars unnecessarily just to enhance my personal comfort or frequent flyer status.

    • Kelle Feb 19, 2012 @ 16:35

      I think this is a topic on which reasonable people can disagree. I do not at all think it is “self-indulgent” to spend up to a couple hundred more dollars on a trip if it means that I’ll be more comfortable. That comfort translates directly into productivity and I think it’s a bargain. In the short term, productivity is greatly affected via short lines, upgrades, extra legroom, lounges, etc, arriving at destination in a fairly reasonable mood rather than exhausted and irritable, and ready to get on with the task at hand. There are also long term benefits that I’ll just roll up into “job satisfaction.” There is no need to undervalue ourselves and deny ourselves the nicer things in life, there are enough forces at work doing that for us already.

    • Adam Feb 19, 2012 @ 17:09

      You left out the important part of that sentence, though: “rather than considering short-term productivity gains and long-term savings.”

      Kelle already partly addressed the first benefit, and I agree 100% with her. If I’m investing several thousand dollars in a trip, then it’s generally to do something important at the other end. It is counterproductive to squeeze another $100 out of the airfare if it significantly impacts my ability to function. For example, when I travel to a conference in Europe, then I’m usually forced into a double-redeye. If I fly the entire trip in economy, then I’m useless for the first couple of days of the conference – negating much of the benefit of the trip! Flying in a mix of Economy Plus and first class makes it a lot easier to function on the other end.

      The long-term savings also add up over time, though. The checked-bag fees on a multi-site trip can be pretty substantial, and I clear enough upgrades that even the savings on meals probably add up to a couple hundred dollars over the course of the year. IRROPS can also be a huge money sink if you’re forced to overnight someplace, and the airline’s willingness to accomodate you during IRROPS depends entirely on your status.

      For me, I think it comes down to a concept that I learned from a grad school classmate: figure out what your time is worth, and then spend money accordingly. Taxpayers are sinking over $100k into a typical postdoc, and more on faculty, just so they can sit in their office. Furthermore, we’re using telescope time that’s potentially valued (amortizing construction costs) at $50k-100k/night for 8-10m telescopes and $200k-300k/orbit for Hubble. We sometimes don’t appreciate how expensive we are, and on that scale, any short-term travel savings are a rounding error…on the rounding error.

    • Michele Feb 19, 2012 @ 17:43

      I fully agree with Kelle regarding enhanced productivity at meeting/conferences (or back from them) because of the ability to travel more comfortably. Ultimately, a grant success is measured in terms of scientific output.

      Also, every institution has travel policies in place, so I think the key point is to familiarize with them and be sure to be compliant to all rules when traveling. If a policy allows me to select any flight within XX $ of the cheapest option, I feel fully justified in taking advantage of that policy in order to get a better flying experience on my preferred carrier (or alliance).

    • Jeff Feb 20, 2012 @ 20:46

      While I have been somewhat convinced to agree with the “increased productivity” argument, when our research, travel and salaries are at the behest of public funding I would avoid phraseology like “deny ourselves the nicer things in life”. I understand the idea, but it seems like the wrong kind of language to throw around when one is talking about publicly funded grants for research work.

      I always considered the discussion of the amount of travel we do on the public dime a bit on the tawdry side, though I cannot argue with the value of conferences & face-to-face research work.

    • aeon May 3, 2012 @ 7:44

      @Andrew: ++

      @Kelle: Speaking from an european perspective, I personally preferred a 5-hour-transit in Casablanca over a 1h-transit in Paris. Saved me 600-1000 € each, which I invested in paying student assistants. This translated even more in productivity. Plus, I had the feeling I was training some emerging scientists…

  • Michele Feb 19, 2012 @ 16:34

    Thanks Adam, really nice intro to frequent flying! If I may suggest, spending a few hours browsing the posts on is very useful for learning how to improve the flying experience. Especially regarding tricks on how to deal proactively with delays and cancellations and on how to maximize perks such as booking of award flights with miles.

  • Adam Feb 19, 2012 @ 17:42

    Regarding South American travel, I’ve looked at going to Sao Paulo or Rio on United (or at least Star Alliance), then connecting to LAN. I think I noticed Lima once, but the reservation system was trying to route me on a travel odyssey through several intermediate airports (Panama City, Lima, and I think one more), which struck me as a dubious proposition. That said, perhaps flying HNL-SFO-IAD-GRU-SCL isn’t the most brilliant plan either.

    Maybe this is something that would be useful to add to the Wiki – a list of the most plausible ways to connect through to Chile on various airlines. I mean, if I lived on the east coast, then I think the Brazil routing would actually be pretty reasonable.

    There’ll be some red meat for the current frequent fliers in future posts. I’m hesitant to just throw people off the deep end in Flyertalk, so I’m trying to come up with recommendations for which of their forums are most useful for astronomical purposes. There also will be a more systematic description of frequent flier benefits, so that everybody knows what perks they should be using. (It makes me cry when I hear about 1Ks who don’t know what SWUs are!) However, the posts I’m having fun writing are the treatments of frequent-driver (car) and frequent-stay (hotel) programs. I didn’t appreciate some of the amazing benefits of rental-car programs until I started researching them. My base rental car has gone from a Focus to a Charger, and those Mustangs sure are nice when you can get them…

  • Kelle Feb 22, 2012 @ 11:39

    link to the wiki:
    There’s already a section there (at the very bottom) on routings to Chile, a stub for Hawaii, and a bit about Australia. The page is a bit long and looks destined to get longer so it should probably be broken up into separate pages.

  • David W. Hogg Mar 16, 2012 @ 21:18

    In any context *other* than air travel, these frequent-flier benefits would be kickbacks and illegal. I don’t really see the distinction. If a supplier gives benefits to an buyer for loyalty, especially (though not exclusively) when purchases are being made on federal grants, the buyer (at least) is breaking the law. I don’t understand why that isn’t true for airlines and frequent-fier programs. I agree with Kelle that it is worth paying for comfort and productivity, but these are kickbacks for loyalty, not services that can be bought with money alone; I think therefore they are identical ethically with other kinds of kickbacks.

  • Jay Mar 18, 2012 @ 6:28

    I agree that the “mile” part of the benefits is weird and not straightforward to justify. But the rest of the benefits (e.g., better seats) I don’t think are unethical. The rationale for opposing kickbacks is that it’s essentially an unauthorized transfer of money or goods from the government or company to the buyer. But federal law (and common sense) already allow for range of options in the phase space of money vs. comfort and convenience in travel; you aren’t expected to take a bus across the country rather than fly, even if it’s a lot cheaper (it generally isn’t). If RyanAir started cheap flights that required standing or leaning, the federal government would not expect us to take them. Similarly, you aren’t expected to buy the food with the maximum ratio of calories per dollar. So it seems evident that simply spending the least possible amount of money for the essential item (travel, food, etc) is not an ethical necessity. In this context, I see the comfort/convenience frequent-flier benefits as services that are paid for with the net excess fares you pay on a particular airline. It would be better if this were all unbundled, but that doesn’t seem imminent.

    • David W. Hogg Mar 18, 2012 @ 10:24

      Jay: It’s the seats you buy *before* you get “Elite” or “Silver” status that are ethically problematic. Those, and the seats you buy to maintain it or to rise to Gold etc.

  • Kelle Mar 18, 2012 @ 11:57

    I just made this comment in another forum on a thread about a committee all being flown in business class to Hawaii for a non-US instrument review. I am re-posting it here because…it feels like the right thing to do.

    While remote conferencing absolutely serves many useful purpose, it cannot provide the same quality of communication as a real face-to-face interaction. I think that situations where most of the ppl don’t know each other and the consequences of the meeting are high, in person is absolutely worthwhile. I think we too often underestimate the role of facial expressions and body language in effective communication. Additionally, the breaks at in-person mtgs provide many more opportunities to discuss topics that may not come up around the table. Remote convos are IMO, only a first order approximation of a real interaction and many times, that is simply not good enough.

    As I said [above], it’s a very simple cost-benefit analysis. The organizers decided that the cost of business class is cheaper than the cost of the lost productivity time while the committee recovers. And I totally agree. Yes, this might be challenging to justify to the average taxpayer, but no more challenging than explaining moon phases, dark matter, or black holes.

    • nick Mar 18, 2012 @ 16:07

      “…this might be challenging to justify to the average taxpayer…”

      this might be challenging to justify to the average astronomer. Now that we’ve all heard several points of view about this, maybe a poll is in order.

  • Phil Marshall Mar 19, 2012 @ 7:12

    Regarding offsets: temporarily putting aside the worry that they are a distraction from the primary goal of burning less fossil fuel, I enquired about using research funds to pay for carbon offsets (through, which has some interesting ideas), but was told by NSF that this is not allowed at the moment. I think that you can take this as meaning that the Government, and by extension the electorate, will not take responsibility for your air travel carbon footprint, and, that we are even expected to take responsibility for it ourselves. Taking the latter view (and I think at this point we have to), I think Ben has the right advice: if you have to travel, do it wisely. For example, my rule is that it is not worth taking a long-haul flight for a trip that is shorter than three weeks. And then while I am away I try and get as much value as possible out of such an extremely expensive flight. When I have a family, I look forward to taking such trips less often! 🙂

    My main concern with accumulating frequent flier miles is that they might encourage you to fly *even more,* rather than simply using them to save you the financial cost to your research budget of one more flight when the time comes around. Related to this is a secondary concern that some people might come to see their accumulated total of frequent flier miles as some sort of achievement, that you have “earned” so many miles – or even that it is some sort of badge of honor. It is neither. It is an embarrassment! But at least it’s a quantified embarrassment 🙂

    Two more ideas for efficient travel. 1) Attach a holiday to a business trip so you don’t have to fly on holiday as well! 2) If your route allows it, spend a day on a train instead of half a day on airports. Almost all of the train time is useful for research. In fact, why not take two days and enjoy the break from email!

    • aeon May 3, 2012 @ 7:49

      @Phil: Your idea nr.1 would not work at least for European Council research grants (and for a lot of national grants as well), because if you do extent a trip, you’ve got to pay a considerable amount of the travel expenses from your own pocket. No argueing about that, even post-conference tours are often a problem with the administration!

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