New Pre-Reclined Airline Seats are Awful – But They’re Just a Symptom of the Real Problem

Two weeks ago I wrote that British Airways is introducing seats with 29 inches of pitch and no recline. That’s an inch less space than Ryanair offers from seat back to seat back.

BA has been on a single mind quest to destroy its brand. It’s no coincidence that parent company IAG CEO Willie Walsh chose the CEO of their low cost airline Vueling to run the British flag carrier.

Since word of BA’s new seats without recline came out the buzz word has been that they’re pre-reclined, a phrase I first heard from former Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza. It’s a silly statement, but it’s also true that their seats aren’t completely upright.

The seats on American’s Boeing 737 MAX aircraft have 30 inches of pitch (they were shamed not to go with 29 inches in some rows) and instead of reclining 4 degrees they recline just two degrees.

Is Eliminating Seat Recline in Coach Actually a Good Thing?

Cranky Flier says getting rid of recline in coach is a good thing. It’s been the source of customer frustrations for a long time. Does anyone remember the 2014 United flight that diverted over an altercation stemming from one passenger wanting to recline, while the passenger behind had installed a ‘knee defender’ on the seat?

Cranky says it’s all about the laptop, and has nothing to do with seat pitch,

It’s always been annoying. Further, it doesn’t matter how much seat pitch you have when you’re watching your laptop get crunched or your bottle of water get knocked off the tray table. The tray table goes with the seat in front regardless of how far it is from you. Those items are going to be smashed regardless.

Customers can’t be courteous and mindful of the passenger behind them, so it’s necessary to take away recline. I once paid a child (with their parent’s permission) $5 not to recline their seat during a Cleveland – Los Angeles flight so I can work. That worked out great.

In any case, there are seats which recline in their own shell, taking space away from the reclining passenger’s legroom instead of from the passenger behind, though those seats are more expensive to maintain.

Airlines Aren’t Getting Rid of Recline for Passenger Comfort

However airlines aren’t getting rid of recline to make passengers more productive inflight they’re doing it so they can squeeze more seats in planes. They think they can get 29 and 30 inch pitch as long as the passenger in front isn’t taking any of that space away.

It’s crucial that American ditched full recline in coach when taking away an inch between seats. It’s just as important that they installed seats with less padding, too. And the lack of seat back video does make the seat feel more spacious.

Cranky and I agree that if an airline is going to squeeze more seats onto a plane like American did in first going from 150 to 160 seats on their 737s and now to 172, they have to reduce or eliminate recline. They probably have to reduce lavatory space, too. That doesn’t mean, however, that eliminating all recline is a good unto itself.

Bad Incentives Lead Airlines to Offer Poor Passenger Experience

The issue is that the US carriers are simultaneously racing to offer good hard products for premium customers (although oddly American is reducing the quality of its first class cabin in those new 737s too so the phenomenon really is largely limited to international premium customers) while reducing the quality of the product offered to economy customers.

I believe there are two reasons for this.

  1. Lack of competition
  2. The antiquated and regulated way airline tickets are sold

We Need to Remove Barriers to Competition

When I say ‘lack of competition’ I do not mean to suggest US airlines have any sort of monopoly. That would be a silly claim in a world where ticket prices are falling. But with only a handful of airlines, incumbents seek to grow to grab every customer segment instead of specializing. The problem is government barriers to new entrants.

  • We won’t let foreigners come invest in new airlines. Foreign ownership rules limit competition to investors already here, rather than entrepreneurs who run airlines elsewhere in the world.

  • Local government airport authorities captured by the airlines. Government airports in the U.S. enter into long-term renewable gate leases that block competitors from building up service at major airports. New airlines, if they could get started, wouldn’t be able to fly at any scale where most passengers are. Access to gates is why Alaska Airlines had to buy Virgin America.

There are other anti-competitive challenges, too, of course including regulatory and legislative capture and the hurdles that airlines have lobbied for in starting new competitors for instance. But these are two of the big ones.

Consumers Need to Be Shown Passenger Experience Features Not Just Schedule and Price

More competition alone may not be enough to encourage product differentiation, and some greater differentiation might occur without additional entrants, if airline tickets weren’t sold almost exclusively on the basis of schedule and price. The majority of consumers don’t know the difference in product to expect up front, making it difficult to buy on quality and removing any incentive for airlines to offer those customers quality.

And that’s why airlines continue experimenting with squeezing passengers buying purely on schedule and price. They don’t know any better, so they keep on buying.

And government has been reinforcing this approach. Full fare advertising regulations, while reasonable, put the focus of sales on price. The Obama administration considered a rule that all airline schedule and price displays would have to include – up front – the cost of ancillary fees for things like carry on bags or second checked bags.


    Credit: US Department of Transportation

I filed a regulatory comment expressing concern that this would pre-empty efforts to display differences in passenger experience like legroom, inflight internet, or other passenger concerns and boil competition even further down to price.

The Obama administration didn’t act on the proposal after several years (unable to figure out a way to do it without causing more harm than good), and the Trump administration closed out the regulatory docket without issuing new rules> — and has come under criticism by consumer groups for doing so.

We need innovation in how travel is sold, and that hasn’t been coming from airlines or online travel agencies in a meaningful way. Customers buy on schedule and price because that’s what is presented to them.

When customers are presented with more meaningful information to help them make the best decision for their trip, customers can make better decisions and the incentive to destroy the customer experience will be mitigated or at least some carriers — ideally more carriers than we have today — will be encouraged to experiment with a better product.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. How come the US airline industry is so uncompetitive/consumer unfriendly? How come it is just a “race to the bottom” with them?

    I don’t hear stories from bus companies like Greyhound or Bolt Bus cramming more in seats in their transportation vehicles. I don’t hear stories from Amtrak cramming more seats in their trains.

  2. Interesting article, especially “They [customers] don’t know any better, so they keep on buying., from someone who I believe self-identifies at the libertarian end of the spectrum.

    My impression is that all airline attempts to sell (at least domestic economy) on the basis of quality of service have largely failed — American’s “more legroom”, Midwest, etc. That might speak to the fact that even when they do know what their doing, customers opt for the cheaper option. Or it could speak to a problem in the market in which customers product choice is different in cases of advance purchase.

    There might be a role for the OTAs and search sites to incorporate some kind of rating or “average additional fees” into their display of search results. But this is not a particularly easy nut to crack as the definition of desirability is different for different people and even for the same person on different trips — in particular, it depends on whether or not one is traveling with checked luggage (when computing the additional fees), whether one is traveling solo, with another adult, or with children (when determining the “value” of advance seat assignments), whether one is traveling on business (ability to work on a laptop), and even one’s height and weight (value of seat pitch).

    To really get this it function well, one would probably have to ask the user a bunch of profile questions prior to running the search (but the ability to save a default profile might induce more users to create accounts with the OTAs, a plus for them).

    One interesting idea which just occurs to me would be if the OTAs were to ask purchasers to simply rate their flight after it was taken. That would not provide insight into individual factors but it might (might — I’m not usually a big fan of Yelp-type ratings) allow users to distinguish between a flight that’s been operating at 4 stars and 2.5 stars over the last six months. One could even combine this with the profile questions idea and get two rating numbers, overall and “travelers like you”.

  3. Until airlines put more space between seats then consider me a fan of the no recline. Nothing worse than a DYKWIA going full recline with their seat damn near touching your nose.

  4. I agree with LarryinNYC; the free market *should* be able to sort itself out. Infrequent flyers usually book using OTAs instead of airline websites, so the answer is obviously a better OTA website. I’m surprised that these better OTA websites like this don’t already exist.

    Mandating that airlines include extra data on their booking site would yield little results.

  5. Come to think of it, Google Flights somewhat describes that “better OTA” website I spoke of. It gives legroom of each flight, along with cost and schedule. I believe the “below average legroom” flag on Google Flights is for anything 29″ or less, but that warning could be made more prominent on the site.

    I understand a lot of the flying public doesn’t use (or doesn’t even know about) Google Flights, but a certain amount of personal responsibility is expected on the consumer’s end.

  6. Agree, @LarryinNYC, @Pat: the technology to create a website with options to personalize is already here; makes me wonder why the OTAs haven’t paid a development team to implement a decent software system.

    I can do this already with hotels–star rating, guest reviews, amenities, location, hotel chain, price range, and more–so how hard can it be with the the flight search engine? Let me, the customer, be the one to play with the filters. Ask me how many bags I want to check; ask me if I am willing to include ALL classes, not just E or J ( you might be surprised to see that a J ticket with 2 free checked bags is only a few $$ more than the E ticket with $25/$35 bag fees).

    Still amazed that nobody has yet implemented this type of service.

  7. I think even if customers were presented with more information on the experience, they will still buy based on price. I think there’s a certain psychological aspect to it, where someone is willing to make sacrifices in the future (less than ideal flight) for a better experience in the immediate (less money out of your pocket). There’s probably a term for that, but I’m not sure of it.

    I know I’ve been the victim of that myself. “Oh what’s a few hours of being uncomfortable on a flight 2 or 3 months from now, when I can save X amount of money today?”. And inevitably, the flight rolls around and I’m wishing I had spent the extra money. I would venture to guess the general public’s thought process is similar, and for more infrequent flyers, they likely don’t learn, or forget entirely, this lesson the next time it comes to purchase a flight.

  8. The ability to cost-effectively create the website described by Kimmie, Larry and Pat does NOT exist and will not as long as the airlines are allowed to publish these additional flight and ticket attributes (bags, reserved seat, use of overhead bin, seat pitch, wifi, etc) in non-standard ways. OTAs spend a fortune trying to standardize and present these attributes but the airlines **don’t want them to succeed**. Notice how clearly each airline presents these attributes on their own websites. Airlines take every opportunity to degrade the travel agency experience. Airlines want customers to get in the habit of shopping their website and not seeing direct like-for-like comparison versus their competitors’ offerings. People don’t want government intervention but without it your dream website may never happen. A few flight (not ticket) attributes like avg legroom, seat power, wifi, etc are aggregated by a non-OTA and this service is used by some OTAs to display these attributes in their search results.

  9. @Rick: Might be a business opportunity for someone to provide a third-party service that, in response to a flight number and fare class, returns this information in a standardized format. That provider would maintain a database with this information which doesn’t sound like a terribly difficult task, at least for the major airlines.

  10. “I can do this already with hotels–star rating, guest reviews, amenities, location, hotel chain, price range, and more–so how hard can it be with the the flight search engine? Let me, the customer, be the one to play with the filters.”

    @KimmieA, this is an interesting point that gave me some pause. When it comes to more routine domestic flights, I am very much a price-schedule type of person. I have not been afraid to leave my AA Gold flying levels to take trips with Spirit , Frontier, etc., but why is that? When booking a hotel I NEVER simply look at price and availability. The amenities matter in that situation regardless if it is a leisure or business trip. Can anyone venture why someone would consider the entire experience when reserving a hotel, but not do the same thing for airline flights? (NOTE: My flight choosing habits do not extend to long haul international flights or award flights)

  11. I am in the minority here, but I flew Frontier (SAN-MCO RT) three times last year and I actually found their “pre-reclined” seats to be ergonomically comfortable, despite very little padding. I found them more comfortable for 5 hours than United’s slim-line seats.

  12. @LarryInNYC @Pat @KimmieA @Andre – Routehappy is a startup that is trying to standardize the offerings / ratings of amenities on a given flight (and they do this by tail number, not just flight number and/or route), and they are actually the company that provides the amenities data that is shown by Google Flights. They are working with a few other OTAs trying to get them to incorporate this data as well. Routehappy started out as B-to-C, and there is still a B-to-C interface on their site if you want to check your specific flight amenities, but they are basically a B-to-B shop now. IATA NDC (New Distribution Capabilities) initiatives are – at its most basic level – about figuring ways to present amenities (and upsell opportunities) in a standardized format across different commerce platforms, and to that end, in the “near” future, the amenities / attributes data should be more easily integrated and will theoretically provide more transparency in the consumer purchasing process.

  13. Yes, yes, yes. I agree. It amazes me that airlines don’t provide better tools (United is perhaps an exception), and that somebody hasn’t done a better job (Google Flights is slightly better, but not great). Customers should be able to check fare classes/mileage accrual (lots of non-frequent fliers care about this), legroom, entertainment options, choose by aircraft type, seat width, etc. etc. It amazes me that this hasn’t been done, because it would be a really good way to get more money out of your traditional casual flyer and it helps any airline that doesn’t currently have the highest density layouts.

    Think about if someone could look at YVR>HKG flights and clearly see that Cathay offers wider, more comfortable seats on their 777 than Air Canada? What if we had a food quality rating? Or an ‘economy experience’ rating tied to Skytrax? I know, not the best but this is how you differentiate yourself when you sink money into better customer service.

  14. Why is it that the arguments that constantly cite ONLY the airlines that failed when they tried to compete by offering more legroom in coach as a justification for relentless “densification” fail to include airlines that DISPROVE this bs lie?

    I mean, seriously, before the campaign to destroy Jetblue began in mid-2015 (ahem! conveniently AFTER Doug Parker and his team of passenger hostile miscreants took over American and completed the cycle of eliminating Northwest, Continental, AirTran and USAirways from the competitive landscape – thus paving the way for the Oligopoly we’re now stuck with), Jetblue’s VERY SUCCESS was due to OFFERING MORE LEGROOM IN COACH THAN ANY OTHER AIRLINE with 34” of row pitch standard on ALL OF ITS AIRBUS A320s, and its “EVEN MORE SPACE” coach rows offering 38-39” of pitch, which is more than American, Delta or United offer in the “first class” cabins of most of their domestic mainline aircraft, and virtually all of their regional aircraft that have a first class cabin!

    Sure, if one wants to cite reflexively the two prominent examples of American Airlines and its failed experiment with “More Room Throughout Coach”, or “MRTC”, or before that, TWA during the final years of its death spiral and its “Comfort Class” (during the Carl Icahn era after the crown jewel routes to London Heathrow had been stripped out and sold off to American, and the airline was emerging from the junk bond induced Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in the early 1990s…where, btw, even light bulbs were used as collateral for those junk bonds…), then of course, it’s easy to (falsely) claim extra legroom cabins are doomed to failure based on the outcomes of those two airlines.

    Never mind the smaller airlines such as Midwest Express, or before that, the original Midway Airlines, or certainly Legend Airlines, which was hobbled by the Wright Amendment and a very aggressive (some might even say predatory) American Airlines, which reconfigured its fleet of Fokker F100s to drive Legend into the ground when it tried to launch an extra legroom, premium service using Dallas Love Field when it was still burdened by the Wright Amendment.

    These airlines never achieved the scale necessary to prove or disprove the validity/viability of an extra legroom product at a coach fare for a variety of reasons.

    Firstly, the competitive universe they attempted to succeed in still had most of the aforementioned airlines – or even several more – to compete against.

    Also, most of those, including Midwest Express for much of its existence, attempted to offer an all business class-like product with 2-2 seating on DC-9s or MD-80s instead of the standard configurations of five abreat, 3-2 seating typically used in coach for those aircraft.

    So, in the interest of creating a more “apples to apples” comparison, can we all agree to leave those airlines off the table for consideration as useful examples of the extra legroom/extra space discussion.

    They don’t apply.

    Besides, back then, even Southwest offered a fairly generous (by today’s standards, that is) row pitch in its all coach 737s (classic or NG) before it densified its 737-700s in recent years.

    So there alone, is but one example, other than Jetblue, of an airline in the pre-government sanctioned Oligopoly era we have now, that did NOT have the type of densification we’re now being told (actually lied to) is the the only path to airline profitability and “sustained” business models.

    And how do we know we’re being lied to?

    Simple!

    Long before “densification” became the lie…er euphemistic “marketing tool”…that’s on its way towards becoming the textbook example of the maxim that if one repeats a lie often enough, and long enough, it becomes a “truth”, Southwest pre-densification, and pre-Oligopoly era of now, was immensely profitable.

    In fact, long before the current era of lies passing for (false) truths in airline marketing and pricing, Southwest as it often crows, has been CONSISTENTLY PROFITABLE, with great shareholder returns over the years and decades of quarterly dividends paid, too.

    Not to mention NEVER FILING FOR BANKRUPTCY, too.

    So, even with more spacious cabins, and yet still, WITHOUT THE FICTION OF RELENTLESS PRODUCT DEGRADATIONS TO CREATE A FALSE NEED FOR ANCILLARY FEES via cabin densifications or arbitrary nuisance fare fences to create bs fees and punishments, Southwest is a success story that itself disproves the entire “story” now told by bs liars who insist that the race to the bottom is anything but the exceptional greed grab by top management and Wall Street that it really is.

    Just as Jetblue in the David Neeleman and Dave Barger eras disproves the FICTION that airlines offering a better product or more legroom are doomed to failure as TWA or American did when they tried to offer more legroom, but failed.

    TWA was already gutted, and itself so diminished in every way possible by the time Carl Icahn took a wrecking ball to that airline, and American was also hardly the airline it was during its best days in the Bob Crandall era when it was the gold standard.

    By the time MRTC was tried at American, the airline had an aged fleet, legendarily bad labor relations with its unions, and a whole host of other problems that make its failure with an MRTC product hardly the be all and end all of any discussion regarding a better coach prodcut featuring better row pitch and more legroom than airlines are willing to offer now as part of a standard coach product.

    By contrast, Jetblue, or even Virgin America, prove otherwise that if a better product with more legroom is offered, people will likely fly these airlines.

    How else did Jetblue succeed as well as it did, in an industry better known for startups that fail, many of which offered the type of bare bones, no frills, no legroom products our greedy, lying airlines offer in an era of limited (“wink, wink”) “competition” that really is a textbook example of what OLIGOPOLIES are?

    All of the crappy, no frills, bare bones airlines like PeopleExpress, America West, USAirways, AirTran, and many more like that are long gone…

    …yet until Jetblue decided to (or rather was forced by Wall Street) cross to the dark side with its recent plan to simpl suck just a little less than everyone else, was a smashing success…with its 150 seat, 34” row pitch standard/core seats, free satellite live tv, and its generous snack basket offerings, it completely DISPROVED EVERYTHING WE’RE NOW BEING TOLD NOW THAT THERE’S NO NEED TO COMPETE ON ANYTHING OTHER THAN WHO CAN SUCK MORE AND GET AWAY WITH IT?

    Just sayin’…

  15. Finally, someone agrees with me about the Alaska/Virgin merger. It was purely about the need to get bigger fast.

    I agree that the passenger experience should be included with price and schedule when buying tickets.

    Last, and perhaps most important, densification could come back to bite the airlines in the ass. When the economy weakens, as at some point it is sure to do, more empty seats on planes and lower load factors might exacerbate the need to lower fares to fill planes. Airlines can mitigate that somewhat by taking planes out of service and laying off employees.

  16. @real-jetsetr “IATA NDC (New Distribution Capabilities) initiatives are – at its most basic level – about figuring ways to present amenities (and upsell opportunities) in a standardized format across different commerce platforms, and to that end, in the “near” future, the amenities / attributes data should be more easily integrated and will theoretically provide more transparency in the consumer purchasing process.”

    NDC does not require any real data standardization. It does require airlines to use XML but it doesn’t specify how any specific data field must be structured.
    NDC is an IATA initiative (IATA is owned by the airlines) to defeat both the GDSs and the OTAs while *giving the appearance* they are cooperating. An airline using NDC will be able to say “the data is available to present all aspect of our products”. But OTAs and flight search providers will need to develop customization *for each airline’s data*. There are hundreds of airlines worldwide, each with dozens of flight and ticket attributes. And it is likely the biggest airlines will purposely structure their data in unique ways ensuring cost and complexity is driven up for the OTAs and GDSs.
    The only simple solution is for the GDSs to reach agreements with the airlines to handle the additional data (to standardize it for travel agencies). It could happen….but I’m not holding my breath.
    Otherwise, over the course of many years, we are likely to see addition of these flight/ticket attributes by some OTAs on an airline-by-airline basis as the airlines use the data to negotiate better commercial deals with the OTAs. The top 4 airlines in America now hold all the cards.

  17. I don’t think a rule forcing airlines to display differences in passenger experience like legroom, inflight internet and TV screens would work.

    Airlines chose not to display this information and it’s generally available to the public.

    Full fare pricing rules is something completely different that aims to prevent drip pricing. It is well established in commerce and it’s the reason why supermarkets can’t add a scan fee to your bill, or a fee for using a cart. Unfortunately the laws that apply to supermarkets don’t apply to airlines (because they’re State laws) so the DOT needs to replicate them in their rules.

  18. I actually agree with no recline for short haul coach, for all the reasons you stated. I think the issue comes in when AA starts using their 737 Max for example on 5hr+ routes.

    However I totally agree with LarryInNYC that airlines have tried formerly to compete on SEAT quality and failed miserably. The average once-a year flier in coach will invariably choose based on price and schedule and this has been demonstrated repeatedly.

    There has been a real disconnect for a long time between what people expect in terms of onboard comfort and amenities (often based on a mythological image of “golden age” jet travel in the 60s on Pan Am or TWA) and what they are willing to pay to travel. Price always seems to win out when it comes to average airline consumer behaviour so you can’t blame the legacy airlines for basing their hard product on this fact. (Although I don’t enjoy it in practice more than anyone else).

  19. @Jake, I agree, forcing airlines to disclose things like inflight internet or onboard entertainment options should not be a regulatory issue as in the end these types of things are service/product issues that have no bearing on health and wellness.

    Indeed, these things, like meals, snacks, refreshements/beverages or even the ability to charge electronic devices ought to be the sort of elements of the travel “experience” that airlines use to earn travelers’ dollars as they were back in those innocent, misty-eyed days when COMPETITION in the airline industry was still believed by most people to be a GOOD THING.

    In fact, airlines used to take out full page ads, or even entire centerfold spreads, in leading magazines and newspapers touting how their service was better than everyone else’s for things that if we actually still had competition now would likely include “how our Wi-Fi is faster and better than theirs…” or “how our state-of-the art seatback entertainment features the latest in blockbuster films, more live sports (of course, especially football, baksetball and golf) than anyone else, more live satellite TV choices for you and your children to enjoy…” etc., etc.

    Oh, yeah, that’s right just like Jetblue used to do when it had to compete for flyers dollars and overcome its smaller network, and had to offer a reason for flyers to choose it over other competitors who may have been bigger, but offered an inferior, or even downright crappy, product.

    Heck, they might even try to fight over who had leather seats, bigger and more comfortable seats, or even leather covered seats in coach.

    Yeah, that’s right, just like Jetblue also used to do.

    And speaking of comfier, leather seats, at least back in the day when COMPETITION was NOT a dirty word, and in fact, was viewed as indispensable, a great many airlines, even no-frills Southwest (when its service was actually “no-frills” instead of now when its largely unchanged service is [hilariously] seen as a premium coach product when compared to virtually everyone else [except, perhaps, what’s left of Jetblue before it becomes just like Delta, United and American or Alaska Airlines if it can somehow escape the jaws of the Wall Street overlords who are seeking to make our airlines suck as much now as Aeroflot or Cubana did in 1975 so they can unjustly enrich themselves from their self serving Oligopoly to fund ever larger and even more obscenely generous stock buybacks than they already rob from flyers]) used to crow about its leather covered seats versus the garbage coach flyers are now being forced to endure many hours of numb butts when they fly, not to mention aching backs and tail bones for days after they fly.

    And heck, they might actually try to fight over who can offer MORE LEGROOM and personal space INSTEAD of now when “competing” and who “wins” is defined by who can shrink seats, take away legroom, and cram in…er “densify” cabins with even more seats better known as the Amazing Race to the Bottom – just like they actually used to back in those “bad days” when we actually had airlines that prided, or at least attempted/pretended, to COMPETE on who could actually offer something BETTER to earn flyers’ dollars instead of now when they all seem preoccupied on who can be worse and yet, still, get away with it in an environment where their very behaviors, actions, and attitudes very much fit the symptoms of what most Econ 101 texbooks define as an OLIGOPOLY.

    But hey, it’s easy to be confused in an era when it’s so easy to lie – and get away with it as our airlines now do so well when they take things away that make for a reasonably comfortable journey and yet, call it an “improvement.”

    Yeah, right!

  20. Gary, why didn’t you release my comment about British Airways in this thread? And anyway why was my comment not immediately posted? I don’t get it.

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