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Author: Chip Wright (page 1 of 28)

Preparing for the post-COVID job market

As the airlines begin to regroup to adapt to the new realities of a COVID-19 world, pilots who are trying to get into the industry must surely be confused and even discouraged, which is perfectly understandable.

But the world still needs airlines, and airlines still need pilots, and low-time pilots still need jobs. There is no sugar-coating the fact that low-time pilots will be delayed in getting that first job and those precious FAR 121 turbine hours. But those opportunities will come.

For now, you need to keep your applications up to date, current, and accurate. You also need to stay in touch with your network and follow up any rumors to cut through to the facts and truth of what is going on. Bad information is acidic, and it won’t do you any good at all. Seek out the truth, and keep your ears to the ground for opportunities and openings.

In the interim, fly as often as you can, and if you’re a CFI, look for any teaching opportunities that might arise. There may not be many, but it may not be as bad as you might think. You can also look for opportunities to take airplanes up for owners just to fly them, and if you can work a deal to get an airplane to fly on the cheap, this would be the time to build some hours and stay current.

What you can’t do is just give up. Even if you have to shift gears into other work for a while, you need to keep your sights on your goals and dreams and continue in the direction you have worked so hard for. The industry has been through upheaval before—nothing like this, to be sure—and it will eventually turn the corner. The strong will survive, and there may even be some new entrants if carriers fail and leave assets to reuse. But people and cargo are going to need to be moved.

Even if you’re outside of the industry, you can work on currency and maintaining a list of good contacts while staying abreast of what is going on. Once the economies around the world get a foothold, the return to growth is likely to be steady, if not quick. Nobody knows when that will happen.

But you do have the choice to be ready versus being left behind.—Chip Wright

Navigating the COVID-19 airline world

I’ve been tooting the horn on progress in the airline industry for several years now, so you can imagine my shock and dismay at the developments in the economy since mid-March.

The C-19 pandemic has obliterated the prospects of a thriving industry that just a few months ago didn’t have enough pilots, airplanes, runways, or cheap fuel. Now, billions of dollars are being lost as the airlines are forced to park hundreds of airplanes, while the ones they are flying are largely empty.

I was asked recently what a day at work looks like now, and in a word, it’s surreal. I haven’t flown in three weeks because my trips have either been cancelled, or I can’t get to work because there are no flights.

When I was last there, the airports were empty. I’ve seen terminals that had more people in them at 3 a.m. than I’m seeing at 3 p.m. There are more employees than passengers. Restaurants are closed or have a limited menu. The retail shops are completely locked up.

You don’t realize how big even the smallest terminals are until you see them completely empty. Miles of security line barriers look silly and out of place now. The TSA personnel are bored to tears. Some flights are so empty that the gate agents don’t even use the PA system to announce boarding. I’ve had as few as 10 people on one of my own flights, and I’ve ridden on flights of multiple carriers that only have one paying passenger on board.

For years, I’ve had to endure periodic memos and initiatives on saving fuel and being on time to minimize clogging up either airspace or taxiways. Saving fuel now consists of carrying an extra 30,000 pounds—up to five hours’ worth—because the fuel farm at the hub has too much fuel and can’t store any more. Never in my career did I see that coming.

When the flights are only carrying a few people, it’s natural to want to push back 20 to 30 minutes early, but we’re being asked not to because of busy gate space. That sounds laughable, but the issue is real. So many airplanes have been grounded that some airports are out of room to store them. Many are stored at the gates, and airlines are minimizing the number of gates they are using. So, being early is still a problem.

Some large hubs are using runways to store airplanes. Right now this isn’t a problem, but it could be. Not only might the runways be needed, but airplanes are so big that if you need to move the one in the middle of a row of twenty, it could literally take all day to rejuggle everything.

As I sit here, the outlook on bookings isn’t good. The airlines that took CARES Act funding have to maintain staffing through the end of September, but based on what we see now, there is likely to be a bloodbath of furloughs come October. It will take some time to work through all of the pilots, since there will be so much training involved.

The feeling is that the flying public needs to regain confidence in travel, and they are looking for one of four things to happen: a treatment, a cure, a vaccine, or herd immunity. None of those are looking great right now, though a vaccine may be closer than we had hoped.

The other piece of this pie is that people need to have something to fly to. The Florida amusement parks are talking about staying closed until 2021, and restaurants will take a while to return to normal, either in capacity or on the menu. Food shortages are possible as well.

This is going to be a challenging recovery. Two airlines—Trans States and Compass, both under the Trans States Holdings umbrella—have gone out of business, as has Jet Suites. Overseas, South African, and Flybe have shut down. Others are likely to follow, and all of the legacy carriers in the United States have acknowledged that they will be substantially smaller come fall. It’s clear that they are now hoping to save the holiday travel seasons. But with billions in debt, soon to be made worse, it’s possible that there will be some more consolidation.

On the positive side, governments at all levels are doing everything they can to help keep the global economy alive. There is a clear goal of trying to let the economy regain some traction in hopes that it restarts relatively smoothly, if not quickly. Only time will tell if that’s going to work.

So what is a prospective pilot to do? Some things are simple: keep applications up to date, making especially sure they are accurate. Stay in touch with your network. Fly when you can, and at least stay legal. If you can provide any aid to those in need with an airplane, do so. And most important, stay healthy. Odds are the airlines are going to offer early retirement packages to senior pilots, and a number of them will jump on the opportunity. That will move things along, especially since retirements are just now picking up.

There will be some “right-sizing” at the regionals as well, and it will bear watching to see exactly how they retool their operations. But there will be room for opportunities for the RJs as well, since they can go to cities with lower demands and help restore a market for their partners. In other cities, they can hold the fort until the majors can bring in larger equipment.

We’ve all heard that we will recover from this, and we will. But it will take time, patience, and fortitude. But a recovery will happen.—Chip Wright

Weathering the C-19 pandemic, part 2

I’ve been flying during the sudden contraction in air travel caused by COVID-19, and the sudden changes have been jarring, to say the least.

I had to leave home as the bottom was falling out, and that meant being prepared for just about any contingency. First, I packed some extra clothes in case I got stuck somewhere. That’s already happened once, and it may happen again.

Second, I’ve tried to keep up with options for getting home if I get stuck somewhere. There are myriad sources a pilot can use to see what flight options might still be on the table if your own airline cuts service or pulls out of a city temporarily. I use Flight View Free, as well as apps for each airline I might use. There are also a few groups on Facebook that airline employees can use to check loads and options.

Third, a number of people began carrying their own food on trips. I did add a few snacks to my bag, but I opted not to take a lot of extra food. Instead, I’ve been using Uber Eats, which has eliminated a lot of delivery fees in order to encourage folks to support local restaurants. Grocery stores are still open, and they are a great option. I’ve also bought food from airport vendors to take with me.

Fourth, my wife and I have been in constant touch, and in a bind she can drive a day to come get me if I can’t get home. On the few occasions that I’ve been too far away for that, we have been tracking rental car availability and pricing. I’ve also reached out to a pilot or two with their own airplanes who may be able to come get me.

This is an unusual time, to say the least, and when you’re at work, there isn’t much you can do but ride it out. In cities where I know people, I’ve reached out to see if I can stay with them if push comes to shove. I know the company will do whatever it can to get me home, but they are overwhelmed right now, and it may well be faster and easier for me to solve my own problems.

I’d like to say that everything always works like a well-oiled machine in times like this, but we all know that isn’t the case. It wasn’t the case after 9/11, and it isn’t now. But with a little forethought and some ingenuity, you can find a way to work around this. And where determination isn’t enough, patience will have to be.—Chip Wright

Weathering the C-19 pandemic, part 1

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a great reminder of how interconnected the world economies are. For airline employees, this has been like reliving the post-9/11, SARS, and the Great Recession all at once.

In 24 years of airline flying, I have never seen anything remotely like this. On my last couple of trips, I flew so few people that if I consolidated all of the passengers on one trip, I’d be lucky to fill one airplane. I certainly wouldn’t need more than two.

Aviation has always been a topsy-turvy industry—one that, until a few years ago, had lost more money than it had ever made. Profits really only became a sure thing after 2012, as the economy rebounded and airlines began to a la carte the pricing model after realizing that they had been giving away the store for decades. In the last few years, employees were able to reap the benefits of this with record amounts of profit-sharing, and for pilots, record levels of compensation after so many years of subpar pay (especially at the regionals).

What we have seen since the end of February has been a gut punch, to say the least. It should also bring home a point that is easy to forget when times are good: Never, ever live at or beyond your means. No matter what you make, especially as a pilot, you should always live some degree below that, and put the difference into the bank or into a debt reduction plan.

There is no telling yet what this will do to jobs across the industry. The stimulus bill will provide a bit of a bridge to get employees through the summer, but two airlines have already shut down (Trans States and Compass, both owned by the same holding company), and as I write this at least one other (Miami Air) has filed for bankruptcy, with speculation about others doing the same. The majors are doing everything they can to avoid any furloughs, but they are all offering early separation packages, which almost always means that furloughs are imminent.

The advice offered here is true for anyone, but some industries are more vulnerable than others, and airlines are among the worst. It’s often said that when the economy gets a cold, the airlines get the flu. That said, here are some suggestions for those new to the industry to consider moving forward:

Create your own safety net. Save as much cash as you can, and not just for a C-19 event. You may need to take a pay cut to further your career or to move. You may get sick or injured. Money in the bank is the first line of defense against any kind of economic uncertainty.

Avoid the captain house. Buy smaller than you might want when the time comes so that the mortgage is always affordable. Pay it off early. Not only will the lack of a mortgage give you great peace of mind, it will also free up some cash flow that you can save, invest, or put toward other debt. When my previous carrier went out of business, I was nearly sick at the thought of losing my house during the recession, when prices were bottoming out and neighbors were filing for bankruptcy or just walking away. I was able to keep my home, and now it is paid for, and the difference in my mindset as a result is night and day.

Eliminate debt. Better yet, avoid it altogether if you can, but if you have student loans or credit card debt, make it a priority to pay them down and pay them off. Don’t borrow for vacations. Pay your car off early and drive it for several years while you pay yourself what you were paying for a car loan so that you can pay cash (or nearly so) for the next car.

Invest in yourself. This is a two-pronged approach. Create a fallback plan to make a living if your lose your job or the industry craters around you. If possible, stay in that line of work part time. A friend of mine is a computer programmer, and his flying income supplements his code-writing, not the other way around. Another pilot became a physician’s assistant during the last downturn and practices on the side. Others have gone to law school. A recent captain I flew with owns several franchises. All of them can live off that other income.

Secondarily, put more money into your 401(k) and IRAs than you think you can afford. Mandatory retirement will be here sooner than you can imagine, and since we are living longer, you need to save for a retirement that might be longer than your working career, especially if you have a medical issue that grounds you.

Finally, hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Be realistic about various scenarios, and be careful with your major life decisions and the money you plan to spend. Make sure that your spouse and family are on board with financial conservatism. In the long run, they will thank you for it, and you will sleep better at night.—Chip Wright

Monitoring guard

During the basic course of primary instruction, we learn about the use of the emergency radio frequency of 121.5. We’re generally taught that 121.5, also known as guard, is the frequency we use during an emergency or when we need to get immediate hold of ATC and don’t know what other frequency to use. And…this is all true.

But one other angle to guard is that we should be making a better habit of monitoring the frequency on the number 2 radio. Just as we can use the frequency to reach ATC, ATC uses the frequency to find pilots who have either lost contact or have potentially put themselves into a violation. One thing I’ve learned in a two-decade-plus airline career is how often ATC needs to call flights on guard. Most of the time, they are looking for an airline flight that has missed a frequency change, but a few times a week, I hear them trying to call a 172 or a Bonanza or such that has either missed a frequency change or is encroaching on restricted or prohibited area.

As an instructor, I admit that I wasn’t too diligent about monitoring guard, which, unfortunately, means that my students missed the learning opportunity as well. I knew about it, and I told them about it, but only as an emergency use frequency.

Nowadays, in the post-9/11 world in which the slightest deviation from a known flight plan makes everyone jumpy, there is really no excuse to not monitor 121.5. Even if you’re not the target of ATC, it’s possible in a local area that you will recognize the call sign of the airplane, and you can reach them on a CTAF or unicom frequency, or call the local flight school where the airplane is based and let them know that ATC is looking for them.

Whether or not you’re thinking of getting into professional or airline flying, you should make it a habit of monitoring guard. You may be the first to hear an ELT going off (report it to ATC, and if you’re not getting flight following or flying IFR, make a note of your position when you first heard it, and any trends in the signal strength). You may also hear an airplane in distress and be able to help the pilot.

However, one troubling trend the last few years that has gotten worse is the number of pilots who inappropriately use guard. Invariably what happens is someone inadvertently transmits on guard, and those monitoring can’t refrain from a series of catcalls and jokes. A simple, “You’re on guard,” or “Check your frequency” transmission is all that is needed. The never-ending jokes and silly comments have gotten the attention of the FAA, because controllers are monitoring guard, which means that they too are trying to handle at least two frequencies, and pilots acting like children just makes their jobs harder.

If you’re not in the habit of monitoring 121.5, try to get into the habit , and watch the temptation to jump on the bandwagon of idiots who use it inappropriately.—Chip Wright

Travel tips from a pro

Here are some generic travel tips that a prospective pilot or even a frequent traveler might want to consider. Some of these are ones that I came up with or discovered on my own, and others are some that I’ve picked up from talking to friends along the way. This list is by no means all-inclusive for every possible idea, and it may not even pertain to every trip, but it will give you some place to start.

Money. Always have a bit of cash in your pocket, as cash is always king, and a few places are still cash only. Not many, but a few. Also, make sure you a have a credit card that doesn’t charge international transaction fees, because these add up. If you plan to continue to use your current credit card, call the issuing bank, and make sure that they are aware of your travels so that the card isn’t turned down on suspicion of being stolen.

IDs/Passports. I never go anywhere without my passport, because I need to present it at the gate to access the jumpseat on another carrier. It’s also a great back-up to the drivers license, and if you ever need a second form of government issued ID, well, voila. That being said, it’s easy to lose or not think about if you’re not in the habit of carrying it, so if you do travel with it, take some pictures of it to keep on your phone and also email them to yourself or store them in a cloud-based account so you can access them from anywhere.

Don’t leave anything behind. Pack your suitcase the same way every single time. It doesn’t matter where in the back you put underwear vs. tee shirts vs. dirty clothes, so long as you always do it the same way. This makes it easier to see that something is left behind or out of place. Use an old grocery bag or dry cleaning bag for dirty laundry. Force yourself to turn the lights off in the bathroom as you take your toiletries out (and don’t turn the light off until you do). For anything of any value, put your name and phone number on computers, tablets, etc. I use packing tape over a typed sheet of paper, and on my phone and tablets, the home screen has my name, phone number and email so someone can contact me.

Phone/computer chargers. I keep my phone charger in one of my sneakers in my bag, and I don’t put both shoes in my bag if the charger is out. Of all of my tricks, this has been the most reliable one.

Storage in the room. Whether it’s food in the fridge or items in the safe, put something in there that you absolutely can’t leave without. Put a work shoe in the fridge or the safe to make sure you don’t walk out the door without your food or wallet. Speaking of the safe, test it with the door open before you close it and lock it. I learned this the hard way when I closed the safe and locked it, only to watch the battery die.

Incidentals. Always get a copy of a receipt when you leave a credit card at the desk, even if you don’t use it. It will help with any dispute with the airline as well as with the hotel.

Protect your room info. Never carry the envelope with your room number on it. Stories abound of people losing a key and finding out they were robbed because someone found the key and used it. If you’re afraid of forgetting your room number, take a picture of the envelope or text the info to yourself.

Bedbugs. Bedbugs can be found in a five-star hotel as easily as in a half-star dump. The quality of the hotel doesn’t matter. Bedbugs often are found in clusters in cities. The best bet to avoid getting them into your luggage is to not put your bags on the bed or the floor, since the bugs seek warm, cloth environments. Use the luggage racks or a desk or table.

These are just a few tips based on years of experience. There are others you will find and can use. But starting here will help, and if my experience helps you, all the better!

Airline-owned flight schools

United Airlines recently announced that it has purchased a flight school in order to train its own future pilots. This isn’t a new concept. Lufthansa has been doing this for years in Arizona, and Comair, the since-shuttered Delta Connection carrier, ran its own Academy in Florida for well over a decade. It was incredibly successful. An overwhelming majority of Comair pilots came from the Academy, which was sold a few years after Delta purchased the airline.

Is United’s move the beginning of a trend? It’s too soon to say, but it’s an idea that shouldn’t be ignored. While part of the goal is obviously to make money, the main motivator is for the airline to be able to exercise quality control over pilot trainees while introducing them to the airlines’ way of operation. When the Comair Academy was in existence, the manuals, checklists, procedures, et cetera, all mimicked the airline, and common sense says that the same will happen again. From day one, students will get used to using an airline dispatch process, maintenance write-up procedures, and the like. While a number of large schools already do this, in this case, it will be done to mirror the mother ship.

Getting their eyes on students from the beginning allows the airline to study their progression in both skill and maturity, as well as to try and determine if the student is cut out of the airline lifestyle. Bad habits can be avoided, good habits instilled, and solid decision-making skills developed. Those that show promise will be noticed, and may find themselves with an inside track to more desirable job openings at the airline in management, training, or other departments.

Other major aviation colleges and universities are working with airline partners to tailor curricula to suit the needs of their partner companies. The risk for the airlines in these partnerships is that the student may opt for a different carrier because of myriad reasons. When an airline owns its own school, it has a chance to choose the students and also embed them in the culture of the parent brand, thus making a defection much less likely, though a few will undoubtedly occur.

I can’t say for certain that this will be the beginning of a trend, but I would be more surprised if it doesn’t. The market for pilots is tight, and all of the airlines are competing for the same individuals. The sooner that a carrier can get that individual under their umbrella, the better. It becomes one less position that needs to be filled later, and being able to program that individual from the beginning is a huge advantage.—Chip Wright

A rough winter

As I write this, I am home dealing with round two of a wicked cold that is wreaking havoc this year. Where I live, it has become so pervasive that schools are closing because of high absentee rates, and some are dealing with a lingering cough that lasts for weeks, if not months. On the news, all the talk is about the coronavirus, while online there are jokes about corona virus being cured with a slice of lime. Personally, I’m feeling pretty miserable, and I’m sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.

All kidding aside, this brings up the point that flying while sick is not a good idea. It can be dangerous (think: blown ear drums, vomiting, et cetera), inconsiderate, and illegal, since the FAA demands that you not do anything in violation of your medical. Certain medications may render you unable to fly for awhile as well.

Flying while sick also degrades your performance, and you never know when you’re going to need to bring your A game. While a desk-bound person or a sales rep or a number of other professions can get by with someone not feeling well, pilots may need to react to an emergency in a three-dimensional environment in very trying conditions. If you are sick or dizzy or sneezing or in a state of fatigue because  you are sick, your judgment is likely to be impaired and your reaction times diminished.

No matter where you are in your flying career, it would be a good idea to review your immunization records. In the last several years, there have been a number of sudden and unexpected changes in requirements for proof of vaccinations from certain diseases in certain countries. Recently, the Marshall Islands implemented a requirement for proof of measles vaccinations for crew members. If you’re considering a flying career that will cross borders, take the time to visit the State Department and Centers for Disease Control websites to see what shots they recommend getting for certain geographic regions. Diplomatic sites for the specific countries can also provide useful information. (This isn’t intended to start or engage in the argument of being in favor of or against the practice of vaccinations, but if crew members can’t or are not willing to show compliance with the laws of nations they may reasonably be expected to visit, then they may be denying themselves the possibility of employment, or risking a termination.)

Flying sick is also a pretty good way to make sure that you stay sicker longer. Staying home and resting is a better idea than trying to power through anything, even a common cold. When you do have to go to work, be a little more aware of basic hygiene practices such as washing your hands with soap, and using hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes. Use sick time for the intended purpose, and you’ll be fine. Back in the day, airlines—especially the regionals—were known for draconian sick leave policies. Those days are (largely) gone, as airlines now recognize that brining your illness to work is never the better solution.

Ask me how I know this…—Chip Wright

Buddy pass tips

One of the benefits of working for the airlines is the free and reduced-cost flights for yourself, your family, or your friends. Generally called buddy passes, you can offer your friends or friends of friends tickets that are essentially stand-by for pennies on the dollar. The common misunderstandings are that a buddy pass is a real ticket (it isn’t); and you can dress and behave pretty much like a normal person while flying on a buddy pass. Not so.

Buddy passes are offered as a stand-by option, which means that if the person wanting travel isn’t too picky, he or she will get a seat on a flight, assuming that there is one. Buddy pass travelers are the last on the list of priorities, and how those priorities are prioritized depends on each airline. The rules of engagement here are important, and it’s critical that you know what those rules are. You need to be able to discuss them intelligently, and be able to answer all of the expected (and a few unexpected) questions.

First and foremost: There are no guarantees. Buddy pass travelers get a seat if one is available, and that often means waiting until the boarding door closes—and even then they can lose their seat at the last minute. In fact, they can be on the airplane, buckled in, and ready to go, only to find out that they are being pulled off for a revenue passenger.  And they need to conduct themselves with grace and dignity and not get visibly upset.

The dress code is a major area of conflict. A few years ago, United Airlines was in the news for kicking a buddy pass passenger off because the passenger was wearing a miniskirt. The airline was in the right, and Twitter was in the wrong.

Now, keep in mind, it doesn’t matter one whit if you agree or disagree with the rules of a given airline. You simply have to follow them. If you’re going to allow others to use your buddy passes, PRINT OUT THE DRESS CODE and hand it to them! Quiz them on it!

One common strategy is to list a buddy pass rider for first class, no matter what, because you can always be bumped from first down to coach, but you can almost never be bumped up from coach to first. That means telling your friends (or soon to be ex-friends) that they need to dress and be prepared for a first-class seat just in case. If your friends can’t comply, then either don’t give them a buddy pass, or don’t list them for first class.

What is frustrating is that gate agents are not always consistent in their enforcement of the rules, and some can even be a bit overly zealous. But if you meet both the spirit and the letter of the law, you should be fine.

Another important lesson is this: Make sure that your riders can carry out the listing process on their own without having to call you every time something changes. Pass riding can be very fluid, and you can’t be expected to give up too much of your valuable time trying to get someone a ride.

Passes can be great, but they aren’t for everyone. Choose wisely and choose carefully. And brief in full!—Chip Wright

Luggage: Pay now or pay twice later

Early  in your piloting career, you begin making not-insignificant investments in everything from books to headsets, sunglasses to spare headsets, and everything in between. Just when you feel like you’ve already bought everything that Sporty’s has to offer, you get hired by an airline, and you’re up to the next sizable purchase: luggage.

Quality luggage is critical. You’ll be dragging a suitcase through airports, parking lots, airplanes, rain, snow, sleet, and the occasional pile of dog droppings. You’ll be jamming your bag into overhead bins, storage spots in cockpits, and places you can’t even imagine. You’ll also be using a flight bag of some sort every day. However, unlike in days of yore, you won’t be needing an old-fashioned “brain bag.”

There are three major brands of luggage that can take a beating and will get you a lot of miles. LuggageWorks is by far the most common. The bags have a metal frame, a durable cloth material, and roller-skate wheels. More importantly, they come with the backing of the company, and if you ever need to have a bag repaired—and at some point you will—the company will rebuild it for the fraction of the cost of a new one. You can also get personalized handles, so that your name is visible to anyone else looking for a black suitcase in a pile of black suitcases. The only downside to LuggageWorks is that its bags are heavy. But…they last forever.

LuggageWorks also makes an entire array of modular luggage that all works together, and it is all made of the same rugged material.

Tumi is another popular brand of luggage, but it is also—by any reasonable measure—prohibitively expensive. That said, it is rock solid; the suitcases are expandable when full; and they are effortless to roll. I mention them because a few airlines use them as “official” luggage, which means you can usually take advantage of substantial discounts. However, those discounts usually apply only to the selected units used by the airline. With the discounts, the prices are very competitive with LuggageWorks.

The third most common is Travelpro. Travelpro is made more of plastic, and it isn’t as durable. The cloth isn’t as rugged as LuggageWorks, but for the standard person it is fine. However, we aren’t standard people when it comes to travel.

Like headsets, luggage is one of those things where you can pay now or pay twice later. Get good quality in the beginning, and you’ll be glad you did. It will also behoove you to get a second suitcase at a minimum. Eventually, your suitcase will need to be repaired or fixed, no matter how well you take care of it. Either way, you need quality stuff that is rugged, well-designed, and fits overheads and cockpit storage areas.—Chip Wright

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