Flight training ripe for disruption

As a Boston-based firm we have grown up surrounded by educational institutions that have had a fair amount of success producing thought leaders and disruptive innovators. Harvard and MIT have spit out their fair share of companies that have brought innovation to sectors like technology, finance, retail and education. Like many of the companies in this region, we subscribe to a healthy does of what we call disruptive innovation, a term coined by Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and thought leader on commercial innovation. (See a video of Christensen describing the concept.)

As Christensen puts it, disruption is an innovation that creates a new market by applying a different set of values, which ultimately (and unexpectedly) overtakes an existing market.  We can point to examples like Apple, Kickstarter, BirchBox, and Coursera (leader in Massive Open Online Courses or MOOC).

Few areas in flight training have been exposed to such innovation. Sure Garmin put out the G1000 and Cirrus produced the SR20 to increase safety, but both products were built at a higher price point that only the top tier of the industry could access. True disruptive innovation transforms a product that only a small portion of the market can access (due to affordability and expertise) and makes it available to the majority of the market.

The opportunity is that there are plenty of areas within flight training that are ripe for disruption.

Student Recruitment 

Both collegiate and for-profit academies struggle to communicate their value to today’s students, the millennial. As an example, Coursera, a driver behind the MOOC movement has focused on bringing world-class education to everyone. They have figured out a way to attract huge amounts of both professors and students onto their platform because of the value they provide. That value is learning at your own pace on your own terms, and having access to a huge community of other learners interested in the same things as you. For flight training, having ground school taught online could not only save the student some money but could also open up the pool of potential program applicants.

As an example, National Aviation Academy is working with Broward College to provide distance learning by having students take all their courses online through Broward College. That way they can complete their course work and flying without having to travel back and forth between campuses.

Student Lending

We all know the cost of education for a student pilot is substantial. I believe there are ways we can offset that cost with new forms of student lending. Take a look at what CommonBond is doing to connect alumni with students to provide financing at a lower rate. Why can’t this be done for aviation? Pilots are a tight-knit group that generally cares about the future of aviation and many are looking for a way to give back. For collegiate aviation it is easy. Alumni can invest through CommonBond and help an aviation student fund their education while earning a competitive return on their capital. Why not expand that same model to academy training?

Cost of aircraft

New aircraft are expensive. We heard at the Redbird Migration Conference a new Cessna 172 will be priced somewhere north of $400,000. As the prices continue to rise, the number of training programs and the number of students will continue to diminish. As an industry, we are squeezing out many organizations and preventing them access to equipment. The good news is that a handful of companies have started to take action and are working on putting a lower cost aircraft into the marketplace for flight training.

Accessibility of training equipment

Combine the cost of new with the average age of training aircraft in the market today (40-plus years old) and the problem of accessibility begins to grow. We get calls everyday from flight training programs that are looking for ways to upgrade their fleet of 1972 Piper Warriors or 1975 C 172s. Accessing replacement aircraft for these programs is a challenge because there just aren’t many options. Most programs have a certain margin stack that they need to fit all of the aircraft costs into in order to break even and not charge the student more money. From a leasing/financing perspective there are very few products that can do that effectively for the majority of the market.

A company that has had success in another industry is Zipcar. They were able to create a model that gave urbanites affordable access to vehicles on an as-needed basis that made more sense than owning the car outright. What if we could do that for flight training? What if we could give flight training programs the ability to “rent” aircraft hourly for one flat rate that included maintenance and insurance? Could that change the way aircraft are consumed?

So many other companies and industries have faced many of the same challenges flight training faces and have been able to innovate and change. As companies and individuals start to go after the opportunities in our industry all of flight training will benefit from the disruption. What other opportunities do you see?

–Nick Abate, director of marketing and analytics for Brown Aviation Lease

The story behind the awards

As we embarked on the 2013 Flight Training Excellence Awards process we sought to build on the fantastic customer response in the nominations for the 2012 awards. Using the newfound knowledge that many flight training customers are willing to tell us about their experiences like they do for other services, we decided to change from a nomination process to a poll. We gave people a balanced mechanism to describe their experience, positive and negative.

Our reward is a look through the eyes of 3,375 consumers that show not only what constitutes a high-value training experience, but also lets us contrast that to those that had a low-value training experience. This consumer-derived report card will be presented at the Flight Training and Pilot Community Summit on October 9 in Fort Worth, Texas, and in Flight School Business communications. We hope this information will help you inform your decisions and priorities for your flight school.

With the new data collection mechanism of the poll we can show a distinct separation between the experiences that customer’s value and those that customers do not. We have used the separation to name not only the one “Best” and top 20 percent “Outstanding” in each category, but we will also able to recognize an “Honor Roll”.

Most consumers will only give a new hobby or leisure pursuit one try. If that experience doesn’t meet with their value expectation we will likely not get another chance as an industry to get them back. By acknowledging these schools and instructors on behalf of their customers we are helping to illuminate beacons that guide prospective pilots to experiences that will more likely result in not only a certificate, but lifelong pilots.

To the recipients of the 2013 awards thank you for converting on the one shot we as an industry had with your customers. We say congratulations, we hope you display your awards physically and electronically with pride and new customers find you because of your achievement. Keep up the good work and your customers will make you a 2014 award winner next year.

–Shannon Yeager, vice president of strategic initiatives, AOPA’s Center to Advance the Pilot Community

Flight instruction as the future of education

This blog originally appeared on the author’s personal website, and is presented here with minor editing.

When I am in discussions about education reform and education entrepreneurship, I often forget that I own a flight school, but then I see a pattern that I recognize and realize that “it’s already happening in pilot training!”

First, some statistics. At any given time there are about 100,000 people in the US who have a current student pilot certificate. This is a round number because the term for a student pilot certificate has just recently extended to 5 years for those under 40 from twoyears previously. Of those student pilots, about 25,000 students take the private pilot written exam every year and about 91 percent pass.

Becoming a pilot is actually pretty easy, but a very thorough and rigorous process. There is a ton of content and decision-making skills you have to master along with mastering the physical part of flying. However, the process is highly flexible, adaptable and personalized.

Multi-modal Instruction

A student has many options to learn to become a pilot. They can watch videos like King Schools, Sporty’s or even some free videos on Youtube. They can read various text books, FAA books, the FAA website or even various material on the internet. They can talk one on one with a flight instructor. They can take classes at a flight school or college. Or, they can even play video games on the computer, like Flight Simulator, or mobile device. Each of these usually includes some form of formative assessment – small quizzes that ensure that you comprehended, retained and can apply the material as you are learning it.

The great thing is that you can mix and match. I really enjoyed watching the King videos. They were corny but entertaining and they had quizzes at the end of each video to ensure you got the material. If you got something wrong, they would immediately take you back to the place in the video so you could re-watch the section and then take the quiz again. This loop would continue until you got it right or cancelled out. In contrast, my friend who was taking lessons at the same time really enjoyed reading the textbook. He read it cover to cover, over and over. I can’t do that!!!

At the same time, we would be training on the actual flying part with an instructor. Our instructor was quite good. He would be throwing questions at me in context to ensure I was getting through my material. Similarly, I was taking practice tests on my iPhone while I was sitting in boring meetings at work. With this much reinforcement, I knew exactly when I was ready to take the test.

There are many insights I gained from my flight school.

  1. Instruction should be de-linked from certification.
  2. However, instructors should be continuously using formative assessment to ensure the student is comprehending, retaining and able to apply the skills, knowledge and judgement you are instructing.
  3. Instructors should be measured by the success of their students.
  4. Instruction should move at the pace of the students motivation and abilities.
  5. Instruction should be provided in as many modes as feasible.
  6. The student should be free to chose the modality that works well for them.
  7. The student should be free to select an instructor that works well for them.

Of course, the biggest difference between flight training and traditional education is that the motivation to do it is completely student driven. However, I believe that students are born naturally curious and want to learn. They just want to learn what they see value in learning. So, why don’t we harness that natural curiosity and desire to learn and use it to provide a better education for each of our citizens. I learned meteorology, physics, biology, mathematics, geometry, passenger management and more, all driven by my desire to fly a plane. I had no real desire to study any of those subjects, but my desire to fly a plane drove me to learn quite a bit about each. Every person has a passion. Every person has interests. Can’t we discover those interests and use them as a platform to deliver the education they will need to be a positive, contributing member of society???!!!!

The biggest lesson is that the problem isn’t money! Learning to become a pilot easily has a school year’s worth of content in it and the total cost including gas and plane rental (the biggest expenses by far) was less than $10,000. That is less than we spend to put a kid through school for a year. Take out the plane rental and the gas and the cost was under $2,000. The instruction costs $45 per hour for 20-30 hours. The videos cost under $300. The equipment costs another $200-400. Learning to fly is expensive, but if you take the unusually high cost of the plane and gas out, it’s actually pretty cheap. Why isn’t all school this cheap?

I think I will continue to add to this article over time, as I continue to learn so much about teaching, learning, etc from my flight school.

–Vince Talbert, co-owner of Middle River Aviation and co-founder of Bill Me Later

Soloing is overrated

I think most of us would agree that landing is probably the most difficult single task that we have to learn as aviators. The pressure of learning to solo was used by the military in WWII when we had to have an efficient system to weed out those that either didn’t have the commitment or “natural ability.”  It was then baked into tradition and it carried on as the former military pilots and instructors shaped the civilian training programs. So it goes today, the vast majority of would-be pilots have to demonstrate that they can do the most difficult thing first before we will show them the other two-thirds of training.

So I have to wonder, is solo-first the best way to make more pilots? Many say that they know a person will finish if they make it through solo. What about the students who dropped out before solo? Were they really incapable of flying? Maybe they began to think that all you do in flying is to go around in a circle and it’s not worth the money. Then they go to the Bahamas for a SCUBA diving trip. Did we need to lose all of these students?

From the standpoint of a recreational pilot in training beating up the pattern over and over again early in training can be quite demoralizing. Many of today’s potential pilots have never personally experienced what recreational aviation is prior to flight training because of things like airport fences and other exciting recreational options available to them. So without any context for what flying is like, the initial goal for these people is just taking off and getting in the air. We then put the most difficult challenge in the first third of training and if they are not a “natural” the difficulty of solo can easily eclipse the goal of just being above the ground–and they drop out.

Instead we could give them experiences of what flying after a certificate is like as they proceed through training by pushing the solo until two-thirds of the way through training. We can then keep the goal of finishing looking more and more attractive as the training becomes steadily more demanding. When the goal is bigger than the hurdle they will be more apt to stick it out and beat up the pattern later in training to earn their certificate because they have experienced the gold at the end of the rainbow.

There is nothing in the regulations that says that solo needs to be accomplished before moving on to navigation and other real world flying tasks. One thing I do know is that no one gets into flying to do laps around the airport. Part 61 says an applicant only needs 10 hours solo with some of that time required for cross-country and preparing for the checkride. Given that, we can definitely focus on landings a little later in the training process, smooth out the difficulty curve, and see more students become certificated pilots. Heck, there will be at least one landing to practice with every flight anyway.

–Shannon Yeager, AOPA vice president of strategic initiatives in the Center to Advance the Pilot Community.

Project Flight School: An end and a beginning

When consultants Rod and Mike first met with Nayda and the folks at Cirrus Aviation, the plan was to spend a few month together going through the business from top to bottom. The consultants would suggest changes, and Cirrus Aviation would try those changes and report on their success. But the relationship didn’t last as long as expected. Nayda was trying to run a business and be attentive to the consultant’s needs, and the consultants believed things were happening fast enough. Here’s Nadya’s take on the situation:

So the consulting relationship has come to an end a little prematurely. Quite alright, as I have learned several valuable lessons from the experience. First let’s talk about what a good consulting relationship should be. This is my second time getting consulting from an outside company and I have learned each time what I don’’t want in a consulting relationship next time around–just like an ex-boyfriend. And staying in line with that, learning what I do want, as well. First and foremost is a two-way street of communication. I want a company to come in and assess my needs by listening to me, looking at our existing business model, and then applying their expertise into the equation. Both experiences I’ve had have been in reverse order. In hindsight, my insight and my expertise is very important in this equation. I think a successful consultant will do more listening than speaking, more input than output, particularly in the discovery phase.

Point two is something that Mike mentioned and that is never to reveal our pricing. This is something I have done in good faith with the highest ethical intentions in mind and it has only created an absolute nightmare. I have customers line iteming me to death, and getting lost in such minutia, that they lose the whole point of their training: proficiency and competency. I am taking the line item back out of our marketing materials and I’’m getting smart about it. Mike said sell the emotional side of things. He’’s absolutely right. I know it, I’’ve said it, and I’’ve even trained my staff to sell the sizzle not the steak. But I need to take it a step further, and I fully intend to.

Before they parted ways Rod and Mike gave Nayda a list of priorities they believed would help turn around the business. Much of this is an extension of issues the two sides had already discussed, but it helps illuminate their vision of how the consulting process went, and how Nayda should continue.

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Project Flight School: Package pricing

As turnaround specialists Mike Dempsy and Rod Beck began working with Cirrus Aviation’s Nayda Cattin, one of the first ideas to experiment with at the school centers around the concept of package pricing, selling value, and how to get over price objections on the phone. Below is the advice Dempsy and Beck gave Cattin.

The pricing below and the way to package it are suggestions. We have come up with a price that will build profitability into each program. Price is always going to be a part of the equation because everyone is after the most bang for the buck. The presentation and close are things most people don’t think about, yet are the most important parts of the business.

SPECIAL PROMOTIONAL PRICES

“Try Your Wings”

Plan 1 – Cessna Skycatcher 162: $795

Course includes: 4 hours flight instruction, 2 hours briefing/debriefing

Flight logbook and basic flight manual

 Plan 2 – Cessna 172S: $895

Course includes: 4 hours flight instruction, 2 hours briefing/debriefing

Flight logbook and basic flight manual

 

“Top Gun” Solo Course

 Plan 1 – Cessna Skycatcher 162: $3.495

 Course includes: 16 hours flight instruction, 8 hours briefing/debriefing

Flight logbook and basic flight manual

 Plan 2 – Cessna 172S: $3,795

Course includes: 16 hours flight instruction, 8 hours briefing/debriefing

Flight logbook and basic fight manual

NOTE: All programs are prepaid for special pricing

When offering packages they should be geared toward the goal of getting the prospect all the way to a certificate. This is an upsell approach that many flight schools do not use. But the opportunity is really there. So how do we deal with the common objection of, “The Top-Gun solo package is a lot more expensive than if I bought per flight hour.” The usual answer is to discount until the customer thinks the price is worth the package. A better strategy is to say, “We find our pilots save money by purchasing the package because they are more motivated to finish up quickly.” An alternative is to say, “Instead of us spending most of your time retraining the previous instruction, students who buy the package (at full price) are more apt to finish the course and reach their goals in a lot less time.”

Are the above statements accurate? I think that someone who flies more frequently picks up on the lessons quicker. The buyer wants the product that gives him the best chance of completing his training and realizing his goals.

We can also handle it in a context based on your actual experience with instructors. Do this by stressing the completion rate and the price savings. To the client it sounds like, “In our 18 years of experience training students, over time we see this program as being the most cost effective way of you achieving your goals.”  Then don’t forget to work on closing the deal by asking if they have time to come by the school today, when they want to start, when they want to get on the schedule, or when a flight instructor can call them back.

Make the proposition simple and interesting. They call and you outline the course for them. At that point, get them talking about the motivation for the course. Start at the top course involving the Garmin G1000-equipped Cessna Skyhawk and why this is really the way to go. If they balk because of cost or other reasons, start working down. Offer the Top Gun program. Say, “Most people who have wanted to learn how to fly actually get to solo an airplane and make the decision from there.” If that doesn’t work, go to the “Try your wings” course. A no response here is a rudder kicker! They may want to go a la carte, but at least you identified someone wanting to learn how to fly.

The real key with pricing and talking pricing on the phone is not doing too much on the phone or via e-mail. Get them to stop in to meet with a flight instructor or see the business.  Don’t spend a lot of time giving all the information on the phone. They’ll have no reason to sign up, and they control the purchase. Turning the questions around on them like, “Do you live in Sarasota?” And, “When would you like to stop in and see us?”

Appointments are the name of the game. You will be surprised by your success if you can get that action put into the thinking. Our Internet department went from a 11 percent lead to close, to a 41 percent lead to close by implementing this as the only thing you are doing. It works. And if you do one thing figure this out. Chances are, most of the time the person will purchase something other than they inquired about. They may think they want the 6-months to private course, and end up buying the LSA course. Either way, you win.

The next update of Project Flight School will Cirrus Aviation’s reaction and experience with implementing the course pricing practice.

 

 

 

Project Flight School: The test subject

The process of business optimization is underway at Cirrus Aviation in Sarasota, Florida. Various best-practice tactics will be tried and their outcomes will be updated here on a regular basis.

Below is a short note from Nayda Cattin of Cirrus Aviation talking about how she sees her business and how she sees this opportunity to share her experiences through Project Flight School.

–Shannon Yeager, vice president, strategic initiatives of AOPA’s Center to Advance the Pilot Community

 

I would like to give everyone some insight as to where I stand currently, where I’ve been, and where I’d like to go.

Where I stand: I am on a teetering point on a daily basis of drowning in my business. I have many ideas I’d like to see come to fruition, and I have zero time to do so. I run a small business, and I wear almost every hat there is, except turning wrenches and flying planes. I am ultra-stressed, extremely spread thin, and heavily burdened by regulation. I know that fellow flight school owners feel the same pressure and stress. I know that fellow flight school owners are scared that their livelihoods can be dissolved in the split second of a grumpy inspector’s decision. I know that fellow flight school owners would love to implement marketing ideas if only they have the time and money. So I think represent this group well, in many ways.

Where I’ve been: We’ve been profitable–once. Once. We’ve been broke sometimes. We barely make it all of the time. We have seen the ups and downs of volume and had to change staffing to keep costs under control. We are seeing an increase in business now, and with a skeleton crew it is tough. We are trying to be true to our words and to our honor, and to give excellent service with half the resources that we need. We are scared to hire more because of the ups and downs. We just hired three more people. It is not enough.

We have had business consultants come into our business when we were profitable and we could afford it. We paid stupid amounts of money to have them tell us nothing. They wasted my time, crunching numbers over weeks, only to find the result that my mathematically genius husband spouted off the top of his head in the beginning. We had them give us Powerpoints, tell how great they were, tell us how great we were, teach us procedures for keeping track of our business financially, etc.

Where I’d like to go: I have several items on my mind that I would like to see come into practice. I need the expertise of someone outside of my realm to help me make these things happen. I am looking to the consultants for help on this. As we have begun this process they have given me so many things that I am honesty feeling overwhelmed. I also have some major items around the corner that I would like to market. They are extremely exciting and will really change some of our marketing strategies and some of our appeal as a flight school in the state, as well as the Southeast region.

So I will prioritize, get the business in the door, make sure I am compliant with the feds, make my customers smile, and implement some of these new ideas. While I am a swan gliding above water, my feet are kicking crazily underneath.

I think there are some valuable things that can come out of this project. I would like to see this work so that my entire industry can benefit! I am willing to put my time into it. I am the first person to be disgruntled and jaded by AOPA, Civil Air Patrol, and EAA. However, times are changing and I recognize they are changing. They are finally realizing what needs to happen in this industry for it to survive and I am honored to be a part of this project.

Project Flight School: An introduction and perspective

The Center to Advance the Pilot Community would like to introduce Project Flight School. The Center has arranged to have business consultants work directly with a flight school. Our goal is to discover if applied business principles can make a difference in the success of a flight school, and we are putting that concept to the test in the real world. No matter the outcome we will gain actionable insight through the process.. So look for video, blogs and articles about Project Flight School in Flight School Business, the Flight School Business Facebook page, and the FSB Learning Curve blog. We invite members of the flight school community to follow, weigh in, and make suggestions during this project as it unfolds over the next eight months. In other words, there will be plenty of opportunity to become a part of the dialogue.

The main players for our first Project Flight School will be Mike Dempsey, Rod Beck, and Nayda Cattin. Mike and Rob are businessmen who have seen success both outside and inside aviation and believe that flight schools can be profitable. They will be introducing themselves through blog posts during this project. Additionally you can look at their company’s blog to get a feel of their perspective. Nayda Cattin is the co-owner and business manager of Cirrus Aviation flight school in Sarasota Florida. She has been in business for 18 years and we will be posting a video introduction to her flight school, maintenance, and pilot shop operations.

Why is the Center to Advance the Pilot Community involved with the business of flight schools? Here is my perspective sitting in the copilot’s seat next to Adam Smith as we line up on the centerline and push in the throttle. I am feeling both humble before the complexity of the flight in front of us and confident that we will be successful on this mission. We have goals to assist all along the pilot continuum from reengaging certificate holders to bolstering the number of pilots in training. I agree with many who have said the CFI is at the center of the largest opportunity we have to make an impact on sustaining the pilot community. We will be contributing directly to CFIs in a number of ways. What my background in business, education, and instructing lifestyle pursuits SCUBA Diving and Skydiving has also shown me is that the experience of customers is often impacted by other things in the overall training environment. So to this end it is in the best interest of the current and future pilot community that we have both successful CFIs and successful flight schools.

In talking to flight schools, some define success a little differently than  I always had in business. Many told me they were successful because they were still in business. While that sentiment seems to be widespread among aviation businesses, to those of us  from other industries success is being profitable. People have shown there is money to be made in aviation. From the Center’s perspective, if your business is in a better financial situation you will be in a position to offer a better value experience to aviation’s newest pilots and keep the current pilots engaged through improved facilities, selectivity/matching of instructors, aircraft, and more attention available to devote to customer and flying community experiences. The value of the pilot experience is what will get pilots to complete training and stay active, especially as we compete with other value experiences such as riding motorcycles and boating. Just because we love aviation doesn’t mean we can’t show the value in our environment and services, which can make our businesses profitable.

–Shannon Yeager, vice president of strategic initiatives

Where are the instructors?

No matter where in aviation you look, it seems the hot topic is making new pilots. Or that the pilot population is aging. We, as pilots, need to hurry up and make more before our airports all disappear.

I own a small flight school in Massachusetts called FCA Flight Center operating out of Fitchburg (KFIT). For us, the problem surely isn’t new students, it’s getting CFIs to train them. There seems to be a larger hole in CFI ranks than in students. I’ve searched high and low all over the Internet with no luck, including a website designated for CFIs to job search. We currently have six part-time instructors. Nonetheless, we do not have any working three days per week. The planes sit on the ground on beautiful flying days.

As far as I’ve researched, we’re the highest paying flight school in the area for CFIs. The camaraderie here is great. The competition is friendly. When the instructors aren’t flying with students, they fly together out for dinner or currency.

We also have a thriving active pilot’s association on the field with more than 120 members. The Fitchburg Pilots Association EAA chapter 1415 has monthly meetings with anywhere from 50 to 200 attendees. CFIs and pilots here have no trouble making friends.

Once the CFI issue has been solved and flight training is being provided properly, we have two items left I can see to bring GA over the top. First would be to provide help to all airports to have a thriving pilot’s association. We need leaders to bring them together. That’s when pilots fly more and fly safe. Next would be marketing. General aviation fails tremendously in this area. Just try telling someone not in aviation you’re going to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for a week in July and you’ll see what I mean. It’s the best kept secret in the world. Boats, motorcycles, and even gun clubs market themselves better than we do. It’s about time we ask our friends like Harrison Ford and Morgan Freeman to help us market GA to the general public.

Charley Valera, owner FCA Flight Center

Four tips to increase student retention

Ever since I began flight training in 2008, the same question regularly comes up around the airport. “Why aren’t more people coming out to learn to fly?” Given that I was still early in my lessons when first confronted with this industry-wide dilemma, I was baffled–learning to fly was simply the greatest life experience (and investment) possible. I was living my dream for what amounted to the cost of a short-term car payment (more on that later). So, why didn’t others feel the same way?

I started digging into this issue when soon enough my own “plight of flight” set in. Weather started hampering my schedule, and with a three-hour round-trip drive to the airport only to find upon arrival that crosswinds now exceeded the Thorpedo’s limitations, the process quickly grew old. If it were not for the great relationship with my CFI and genuine enjoyment drawn from every lesson (even those on the ground), Mother Nature combined with what soon became one mechanical obstacle after another surely would have shooed me away.

Now, five years later with close to 100 aviation lectures under my belt, I realize that cost itself is not the barrier, but rather, value determines commitment. “How much am I willing to pay to live my dream?” In other words, if it costs me $6,000 to get my sport pilot certificate (and that is what I paid), it is only expensive if I am having a lousy time. If the experience is great, it’s a bargain.

So, what are some things the flight training industry (and pilot community in general) can do to stop losing eight of every 10 students? Here are four ideas:

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