Wed 13 Dec 2017 - Impact

How Airports Can Keep Up with the Future of Travel

A conversation with Max Hirsh, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and a leading expert on airports and urban infrastructure.


Max Hirsh, the author of the recent book Airport Urbanism, became a global traveler at a very young age. Living in Germany, Switzerland, and the U.S., he spent a lot of time with his family figuring out how to move as cheaply as possible between countries and continents. With a curious eye, and lots of layover time on his hands, he noticed that airports were getting bigger, busier, and filled with a wider range of travelers. These observations led to the two main questions that define his work to this day. First, how does the “other half” (or non-elite passengers) fly and how can airports be redesigned for them? Second, with the number of passengers projected to double in the next two decades, how can we coordinate airport expansion plans with the broader development goals of the cities they serve? We spoke with Max about these questions and more as part of our look at the changing nature of air travel.


We’re huge fans of your recent book. For those who aren’t yet familiar, what does “Airport Urbanism” mean?


Hirsh: Airport Urbanism is a people-focused approach to designing airports and developing neighborhoods around major airport hubs. It’s based on ten years of research that I did at more than 50 airports around the world. During that time, I interviewed hundreds of passengers, airport managers, architects, planners, developers, and airline employees.


What are some of the insights that came out of that research?


Hirsh: A big one is that the needs and desires of air passengers are changing fast, but the designs of airports have remained pretty much the same. Over the last decade, travelers have become much more diverse in age, income, cultural background, and trip purpose. And along with that diversity, we’re seeing the emergence of particular passenger types, each of which has highly specialized transport needs, taste preferences, and spending habits. Just to give three examples: middle-class passengers from China, commuting retirees, and business travelers who fly on budget airlines.


Unfortunately, airports aren’t building terminals that address the needs of a rapidly expanding flying public. As a result, I see a lot of missed opportunities to improve the passenger experience and generate revenue by offering a wider variety of goods and services targeting specific passenger types.


Priority seating for monks, the elderly, the handicapped, and mothers at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok.


You mentioned you'd met a diversity of travelers over the years. What are some of their unique travel needs?


Hirsh: One of my favorite research techniques is to accompany different types of passengers through the airport. It’s an illuminating experience! I’ve traveled with elderly couples, migrant workers, platinum-level business executives, flight crews, and tourists from emerging economies. You name the group; I’ve spent time with them in airports.


What I’ve found is that each passenger type has particular needs, some of which are intuitive, while others are less obvious. For example, we might think that older travelers prefer to minimize walking. Indeed, navigating an endless terminal pier can be a real pain (literally!) for someone with impaired mobility. But a lot of senior citizens I spoke to mentioned the desire to move around before a long flight—sitting still is tough on the joints. They enjoy strolling through the airport or finding a quiet place to stretch.


Cultural differences also account for unique practices and expectations. Many Chinese passengers travel with their tea and are frustrated when they can’t find any boiling water. Asian tourists assume that airports will offer small, packaged gifts—usually food—that they can purchase at the last minute for their friends and relatives. And travelers from a wide variety of countries in the Middle East, Africa, and the Caribbean are often greeted by very large welcoming parties who gather at the airport ahead of time.


Being aware of these different expectations is crucial for planning a friendly and efficient terminal. These insights are also an excellent way to identify new sources of revenue.


Travelers check in for flights at Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s Low-Cost Carrier Terminal.


Revenue, now the ears perk up. What’s the value of serving the needs of this “invisible majority”?


Hirsh: After my book came out, a lot of airport planners and consultants contacted me to exchange ideas. Often, they told me that they were aware of the need to design for a much wider flying public, but that it was hard to convince their clients—usually airport authorities, cities, and transport ministries.


A lot of that boils down to money. Airports and airlines derive most of their profits from frequent business travelers who go through fast-track security lines and head straight for the lounge. (Full disclosure: I’m one of them.) There isn’t much of a direct financial incentive to address the needs of other types of travelers. So they don’t.


But there are a few basic flaws with that argument. First off, airports have become one of the very few public spaces in the city where people from all walks of life converge. As such, I think that governments should provide airports with the resources that they need to serve a flying public that’s getting larger and more diverse every year. Moreover, smart cities recognize that airports are their calling card: it’s the very first and last impression that visitors have of your town, and also of your country. How visitors experience the airport has a significant impact on their overall impression of your country, and it’s an important factor in determining whether they want to come back. It’s crucial to ensure that those memorable first and last experiences are positive ones.


So what you’re saying is that airports should target a wider range of travelers?


Hirsh: I spend lots of time talking to frequent flyers. Once they clear security, most of them make a bee-line to the lounge because they know that everything there--food, drink, entertainment--will be free. They’re not spending money in the terminal. Meanwhile, plenty of people who don’t have lounge access would be more than happy to hand over some cash if it makes their airport experience a bit more pleasant. It’s that mass market of travelers that airports need to engage.


What are some examples of cities served by multiple airports? What sorts of unique capacity challenges do they face?


Hirsh: Many of the world’s largest cities have two or more major airports. Paris has four. L.A. has five. London has six. There are also some densely populated urban regions, such as Germany’s Ruhr and Japan’s Kansai, that are served by several airports. Transport planners call these multi-airport systems or multiple-airport regions (MARs).


There are conflicting views about whether it makes sense to concentrate a city’s air traffic at one hub or distribute it to airports located throughout the region. Single-hub advocates argue that it keeps costs down for airlines, increases the number of possible flight connections, and limits aviation’s adverse effects such as noise and air pollution to one location. Supporters of a multi-airport approach contend that it’s a more equitable way to distribute both the positive and negative effects of aerial connectivity throughout the city. It also allows each airport to focus on what it does best. In advanced MARs, airports concentrate on particular passenger types, such as people who are transferring between intercontinental flights, business travelers who value time more than money, and budget tourists who do the opposite. Elsewhere, individual airports serve specific parts of the city or focus on a particular airline alliance like OneWorld and SkyTeam.


Personally, I’m a fan of the multi-airport approach. The main argument against it is that it reduces the number of flight connections, which is a valid point. On the other hand, if it were easy to transfer between airports—say, via a dedicated high-speed ground connection—then that would no longer be an issue. We’re quite a way away from that, but I could see it happening in the next decade or two.


Do you see a day when Hyperloop could connect airports with cities?


Hirsh: For sure. Some European hubs are already connected to each other by high-speed train. For example, when you land at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle, information screens display both connecting flights and connecting trains to Amsterdam and Brussels. The general rule of thumb is that high-speed rail becomes competitive with air travel for journeys of four hours or less. High-speed trains are also an excellent way to increase an airport’s catchment area. Take the example of Taipei’s Taoyuan International: since the government built a high-speed rail station near the airport, more than 90% of the island’s population can get to the airport in under an hour.


So there’s potential to integrate Hyperloop with airports. But I also see some barriers. Airports derive a lot of their income from airlines, and airlines see high-speed ground transport as competition. And in many countries, aviation authorities and transport ministries operate as separate fiefdoms, making it difficult to plan integrated air/rail facilities. So you’d need to create governance and profit-sharing incentives for a multi-modal approach to airport design.


Do the airport and city need each other to thrive?


Hirsh: Definitely. Successful airports coordinate their future expansion plans with the broader development goals of the city that they serve. In other words: airports and cities grow best when they grow together.


Cities around the world are building new urban districts around airports, either on the “land-side” of the airport itself or in surrounding communities just beyond the perimeter fence. A lot of these projects are based on an urban planning model called the aerotropolis. The aerotropolis’ basic argument goes something like this: in a globalizing economy, access to air travel is essential for doing business, so land around the airport should be a desirable place to build corporate headquarters, convention centers, and conference facilities. The airport area should also be attractive to logistics firms that handle time-sensitive products like food and flowers.


The concept was very compelling when it was introduced 30 years ago but, unfortunately, it turns out that it’s just not true. Most aerotropolis projects don’t deliver a return on investment. I’ve visited dozens of these failed projects all over the world.



What is it about the aerotropolis ideas that is failing? Are there any success stories?


Hirsh: There are a few examples where the aerotropolis model has been a huge success: places like Schiphol in the Netherlands or Las Colinas, Texas, near Dallas-Fort Worth airport. But these places do well because the airports that they’re attached to are in the middle of a dense metropolitan region. It’s been difficult to reproduce those conditions elsewhere. That’s because the aerotropolis model is based on a lot of wishful thinking rather than a solid business case. It prescribes what “should” be built around an airport, instead of engaging with the actual needs and demands that already exist.


Recently, I wrote an article called “What’s Wrong with the Aerotropolis Model?” Within days, hundreds of planners, developers, and airport directors got in touch with me to share the many challenges that they encountered at aerotropolis projects. Drawing on these experts’ feedback, I decided to develop an “airport urbanism” approach to planning around the airport.


Whereas the aerotropolis starts with a predetermined set of building types like office parks and logistics hubs, airport urbanism starts with people. And whereas the aerotropolis takes a one-size-fits-all development approach, airport urbanism emphasizes each airport’s unique user profile to generate site-specific development strategies that focus on the needs and desires of passengers, airport employees, and nearby residents. Strengthening the relationship between these actors is a powerful tool for increasing non-aeronautical revenue, improving the passenger experience, and growing the local economy.


That’s an interesting concept. How can you apply it to a particular airport?


Hirsh: Working together with airports, developers, and urban planners, I conduct studies and workshops where we use a three-step research method. First, we identify pre-existing assets “on the ground” such as industries, attractions, and skills that would be valuable for future development projects. Then we ask the people who use the airport on a regular basis—passengers, residents, employees—what they need to figure out how airport-area developments can satisfy those needs. What kinds of services and amenities are currently missing in the airport area, and how could the urban districts be built around the airport address those unmet demands? Finally, we connect these local factors to broader technical, spatial, and demographic changes that are taking place in the aviation industry and at airports around the world. This last piece enables an airport to see how it fits into a larger global picture. This approach produces a site-specific development plan that celebrates each airport’s unique user profile.


One city that I worked in had an amazing music scene. A lot of people flew there to attend concerts and festivals, and some of the towns right next to the airport were home to internationally recognized musicians. Unfortunately, there was a shortage of venues that could host large crowds. So, we proposed to build a concert hall at the airport: and it turns out that airports are a perfect location for doing that. Concerts create a lot of noise—which isn’t a problem at the airport. And operating a big event space requires know-how regarding security screening and crowd management—skills that airport staff already have.


What are other challenges on the horizon for airports?


Hirsh: A big one is parking. Right now, airports derive about a quarter of their total operating revenue from parking fees. But the advent of ride-hailing apps—Uber, Lyft, Didi Chuxing—poses a big challenge to that model, as fewer and fewer people self-park at the airport. So airports need to start thinking about how to compensate for that drop in income. In the next 5-10 years, that will involve expanding the range of non-aviation services and redeveloping existing parking facilities to accommodate other purposes.


What’s your favorite airport?


Hirsh: I live in Hong Kong, and I’m partial to its airport. It offers a high level of service to passengers, regardless of whether you’re flying first class to New York or on a budget flight to inland China.


Hong Kong’s airport also has excellent ground transport connections. There’s a dedicated high-speed train to the city center and a network of airport buses and ferries. That’s a big plus for someone like me, who flies every other week. I live 20 miles from the airport, and I can leave my apartment an hour before boarding and not have to worry about missing my flight. That’s pretty darn incredible.


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  • Q. What is Virgin Hyperloop?

    We're a privately-held company on a mission to create fast, effortless journeys that expand possibilities and eliminate the barriers of distance and time.

  • Q. Why are you building a hyperloop?

    There are too many people caught bumper-to-bumper in traffic, who have to make a hard choice with their family on where to live and work, and who are limited in their access to experiences and opportunities. We're building a system that will give back time and deliver the travel experience of the future.

  • Q. Why do we need hyperloop now?

    The number of cars is set to double worldwide by 2040, same with air and trucking. We are already dealing with the effects of pollution, lack of access, and congestion. If we only invest in the same technologies we’ve had for more than a century, tomorrow will look like today, only much worse. It’s been over a century since the Wright Brothers first showed us human flight was possible. It’s time for a new era in transportation capable of carrying us forward for the next 100 years.

  • Q. How much funding has Virgin Hyperloop received?

    To date, we have received over $400 million.

  • Q. Who are the key investors in Virgin Hyperloop?

    A major investor of ours is DP World, a leading enabler of global trade who sees the potential of sustainable hyperloop-enabled cargo systems. Additionally, we are backed by the Virgin Group, an industry leader across rail, aviation, ships, and even spacecrafts. For more on our investors, visit the company page.

  • Q. Does Virgin Hyperloop have any partners?

    Virgin Hyperloop One is the only hyperloop company that has a strategic partnership with a mass transportation company, the Virgin Group, an industry leader across rail, aviation, ships, and even spacecrafts. Another key partner of ours is DP World, a leading enabler of global trade who sees the potential of sustainable hyperloop-enabled cargo systems. Other industry-leading partners include KPMG, Foster + Partners, Systra, BIG, SNCF, GE, Deutsche Bahn, Black & Veatch, McKinsey, Deloitte, Jacobs, Turner & Townsend, ARUP, and Steer, among others.

  • Q. Is Elon Musk an investor or affiliated with Virgin Hyperloop?

    No, there’s no connection with Elon Musk.

  • Q. How do you plan to scale up operations around the world?

    We aren't just building a hyperloop; we're building a network of public and private partners to scale an integrated supply chain ecosystem. Our business model is based on partnerships that create local jobs and opportunities for those who choose to invest in this technology. We are working at the highest level of governments around the globe to put in place commercial agreements to make hyperloop a reality.

  • Q. What is hyperloop?

    Hyperloop is a new mode of transportation designed to eliminate the barriers of distance and time for both people and freight. It can travel at speeds approaching 700mph, connecting cities like metro stops - and it has zero direct emissions. The journeys can be booked on demand so there’s no wait time or delays.

  • Q. How does hyperloop work?

    With hyperloop, vehicles, called pods, accelerate gradually via electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube. The pod floats along the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds for long distances due to ultra-low aerodynamic drag.

  • Q. Has hyperloop technology been proven?

    On May 12th, 2017, we made history two minutes after midnight when we successfully launched our vehicle using electromagnetic propulsion and levitation under near-vacuum conditions at our full-scale test site in the Nevada Desert. We've since run hundreds of tests, acquiring validated knowledge that only comes from real-world testing. For more info on DevLoop, our 500 m test track, visit our progress page.

  • Q. How fast can hyperloop go?

    We estimate that the top speed for a passenger vehicle or light cargo will be 670 miles per hour or 1080 kilometers per hour. That is about 3 times faster than high-speed rail and 10-15 times faster than traditional rail. The average speed vehicles travel will vary based on the route and customer requirements.

  • Q. Why keep the tube at low-pressure and not at a perfect vacuum?

    A perfect vacuum would decrease the drag on the vehicle even more, but not significantly. We have already gotten rid of 99.9% of the air in the tube. Lower levels of vacuum than this are important if you are performing scientific experiments, but the cost would not be worthwhile.

  • Q. How is hyperloop different from high-speed trains?

    Hyperloop is an entirely new mode - think the best of trains, planes, and the metro. Hyperloop is on-demand, offering flexible travel schedules with no stops, no transfers, and no weather delays – all at speeds about 3 times faster than high-speed-rail and less cost. Hyperloop is highly efficient, with a smaller environmental impact than high-speed rail because the closed system can be tunneled below or elevated above ground, avoiding dangerous at-grade crossings. The VHO system is 100% electric and can reach higher speeds than high-speed rail for less energy due to our proprietary electric motor and low-drag environment.

  • Q. Is hyperloop safe?

    Fast, effortless journeys go hand-in-hand with journeys where everything works reliably without interference, and where all passengers feel comfortable and safe. The Virgin Hyperloop is designed to be inherently safer than other modes, with multiple redundancies in place. Our system operates autonomously in an enclosed tube and is not susceptible to weather delays, accidents from at-grade crossings, human error, or power outages. Our proprietary high-speed switching architecture eliminates unsafe track configurations and moving trackside parts, a failure point of traditional rail with mechanical switches.

  • Q. How do you plan to get hyperloop certified?

    As new mode, we have to prove our safety case to regulators and work with them to develop a regulatory framework, so passengers can ride the hyperloop in years not decades. We are encouraged by the support we are seeing at the local and federal level around the world to support hyperloop certification based on the fundamentals of safe operating that are already standard practice. In March 2019, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, created the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology (NETT) Council to explore the regulation and permitting of hyperloop technology to bring this new form of mass transportation to the United States. This Council is an important step forward in recognizing hyperloop is a new transportation mode and that we need to shift our mindset and acknowledge that this technology does not fit into a regulatory structure that is over 100 years old. The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DGMOVE) has also been leading discussions with hyperloop companies to advance regulatory standards and, in India, the Principal Scientific Advisor (PSA), Prof. Vijayraghavan, has set up an independent committee called the Consultative Group on Future of Transportation (CGFT) to explore the regulatory path for hyperloop. For more, visit our regulatory progress pages.

  • Q. What will it feel like to ride hyperloop?

    While flying through a tube at more than 1000km/h might seem like a thrill ride, the truth is we are able to mitigate any uncomfortable acceleration forces within our controlled environment. The journey will be so smooth, you could sip a coffee the whole time without spilling a single drop. Normal acceleration and deceleration of 0.20 Gs will feel similar to a train. As a comparison, flooring a typical sedan gives between 0.4-0.5 Gs and commercial airplanes see 0.3-0.5Gs depending on the plane and load.

  • Q. What happens if there's a sudden breach in the tube?

    Pods will continue to travel safely to the next portal even with a large breach. Our response to a breach would be to intentionally repressurize the tube with small valves places along the route length while engaging pod brakes to safely bringing all pods to rest before it is deemed safe to continue to the next portal. A sustained leak could impact performance (speed) but would not pose a safety issue due to vehicle and system architectural design choices. This assessment is based in solid understanding and analysis of the complex vehicle load behaviors during such an event.

  • Q. Is hyperloop sustainable?

    Without a massive leap forward, pollution from the transportation industry is expected to almost double by 2050 - well above the carbon budget. By combining an ultra-efficient electric motor, magnetic levitation, and a low-drag environment, the VHO system can reach airline speeds for 5-10x less energy (depends on route length) and can go faster than high-speed rail using less energy. In regions like the Middle East, we could power the system completely by solar panels which cover the tube. As fighting against climate change becomes an existential issue for cities across the globe, hyperloop will create a new, shared, electric mobility model for helping to permanently reform an industry with some of the world’s highest carbon emissions.

  • Q. How much energy does hyperloop use?

    We are designing Virgin Hyperloop to be more efficient than other modes of transportation. Modern jetliners use up to 10 times the energy we use per passenger-mile over the entire journey. We can cruise at 500 miles per hour for less energy (per passenger) than an electric car doing 60 miles per hour. At peak speed, the VHO system consumes approximately 75 watt hours per passenger kilometer (Wh/pax-km). To put this in perspective, the fastest conventional maglev train travels at about half our speed and consumes 33% more energy.

  • Q. Where will hyperloop get its power?

    Our system is 100% electric with zero direct emissions. We're energy-agnostic. Our system can draw power from whichever energy sources are available along the route and support a transition to a renewable energy-powered future. In regions like the Middle East, we can completely power the system with solar panels which cover the tube.

  • Q. How much noise does hyperloop make?

    It’s similar those new electric vehicles that are so quiet they need to create noise to indicate movement. With hyperloop, we eliminate sources of mechanical noise, like wheels on track, and we actually have a sound barrier inherent in our tube design

  • Q. Can hyperloop be used for cargo?

    DP World Cargospeed is a global brand for hyperloop-enabled cargo systems operated by DP World and enabled by Virgin Hyperloop technology. These systems will deliver freight at the speed of flight and closer to the cost of trucking for fast, sustainable, and efficient delivery of palletized cargo.

  • Q. What type of cargo would a hyperloop system transport?

    The focus would be on high-priority, on-demand goods – fresh food, medical supplies, electronics, and more.

  • Q. How can hyperloop help transform logistics?

    With DP World Cargospeed, deliveries can be completed in hours versus days with greater reliability and fewer delays. It will expand freight transportation capacity by connecting with existing modes of road, rail, ports, and air transport, and will provide greater connectivity with manufacturing parks, economic zones, distribution centers, and regional urban centers. This can shrink inventory lead times, help reduce finished goods inventory, and cut required warehouse space and cost by 25%. DP World Cargospeed networks can also enable just-in-time, agile manufacturing practices.

  • Q. Will the first hyperloops be passenger or cargo systems?

    The Virgin Hyperloop is unique in that it doesn’t need to be passenger-only or cargo-only. We are designing a mixed-use system that fully utilizes system capacity while maximizing economic and social benefits. However, it is possible to run cargo commercial operations while certification and regulation are still ongoing for passenger use.

  • Q. When will hyperloop systems be ready for cargo and passengers?

    We are working with the most visionary governments around the world to make sure you can ride the hyperloop in years, not decades. Our goal is to have operational systems in the late 2020s. Our ability to meet that goal will depend on how fast the regulatory and statutory processes move.

  • Q. Where will the first hyperloop get built?

    We are working with visionary governments and partners around the world to make hyperloop a reality today. To learn more about our projects around the world, visit our progress page.

  • Q. How much will hyperloop cost to build and operate?

    Capital and operating costs will range widely based on the route. We recently released a study that showed our linear costs are 60-70% that of high-speed rail projects. In addition, we expect the operational costs to be significantly lower than existing forms of transportation.

  • Q. How much will hyperloop cost to ride?

    It’s simple – if it’s not affordable, people won't use it. We are looking to build something that will expand opportunities for the masses, so they can live in one city with their family and work in another. Currently, that kind of high-speed transport is not feasible for most people. The exact ticket price will vary for each route, but a recent study showed that riding a hyperloop in Missouri could cost less than the gas needed to drive.

  • Q. How are hyperloop routes selected?

    We are in the business of serving local needs, not the other way around. Public and private support is key. In some cases, we will respond to solicited bids with partners when we feel the technology matches the project’s objectives. In other cases, we will make an unsolicited bid for a project when we see that hyperloop could offer a unique solution to market needs.

  • Q. What is the process for getting a passenger route up and running?

    While the technology is different, the process for building a hyperloop is similar to that of building a highway, railway, or any other type of linear infrastructure. The first stage is project development. This phase includes feasibility studies, and then more detailed engineering reports and environmental impact studies. Once a project is approved to move forward, a consortium is formed to finance and deliver on the project.

  • Q. How much land does hyperloop require?

    Many infrastructure projects succeed or fail based on right-of-way issues. We are designing a system that requires only about half the right-of-way as high-speed rail and can more easily adapt to existing right-of-ways. At high speeds, the VHO system has a 4.5 times tighter turn radius compared to high-speed rail and can climb grades that are 6 times steeper, reducing the disturbance at crossings. Portals will be purposely integrated into and support existing communities and landscapes. Low noise levels will expand opportunities to build hyperloops closer to the city center.

  • Q. With the focus on connecting cities, how will hyperloop support rural communities?

    Hyperloop also holds enormous promise for rural communities. Virgin Hyperloop systems can be built below or above ground, which means no one’s farm needs to be cut in half. Our system enables rural areas to retain residents, who can now have more access to urban job centers, educational opportunities, and health care facilities. Additionally, hyperloop could enable freight distribution centers to be placed in rural areas, leading to job growth and industrial clusters. After a system is built, there is the opportunity to add additional on and off-ramps, supporting a greater number of people along the route.

  • Q. How will hyperloop projects be financed?

    Transportation infrastructure has traditionally relied on extensive government funding. This is because the benefits of clean, safe, and efficient transportation are enjoyed by the entire community, not just the user buying a ticket. However, most existing mass transportation modes are unprofitable and hindered by existing infrastructure built in the past century or by legacy systems. We want to change that and are focused on public-private partnerships. By developing a new mode of transportation from scratch, we're able to leverage technological developments that have occurred in the last century, especially the IT revolution. We're able to keep maintenance costs low, energy efficiency high, and transport tens of thousands of passengers per hour. This keeps margins and accessibility high, contributing to more financially attractive returns than if the corridor was served by existing modes. These benefits aren’t just hypothetical. While this is an exceptional case due to high demand, a third-party evaluation found that our Mumbai-Pune Hyperloop Project could be funded 100% by private capital. In the U.S. we see enormous potential to attract investment from the private sector, leveraging public investments. Involving government stakeholders as well as potential private investors early in the project development process is critical.

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