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Does common sense go out the window when people get on an airplane? We’ve seen passengers end up in jail for painting their nails, play barefoot footsie and even use the air vent to dry their underpants. There is a place where these passengers can be held up for Internet ridicule.
On this week’s Talking Points, Brian Kelly — The Points Guy — sat down with Shawn Kathleen, the woman behind the hilarious and cringe-worthy Instagram account Passenger Shaming.
The former flight attendant, who goes by SK, explains how after years of witnessing passengers engage in ridiculous behavior — such as inflight grooming at your seat — she would jot down what she saw in a journal. After her colleagues encouraged her to share what she saw with the rest of the world, she created what became this viral social media account. She describes how the account’s popularity skyrocketed when news outlets like Good Morning America and CNN picked it up, what constitutes shameful behavior and where she gets most of her content.
“The sense of entitlement is really high with a lot of people these days and they feel like, ‘Hey, I spent a few hundred dollars for my ticket, I can do whatever I want on this plane,” SK said.
Anyone can submit a photo or video to the account, but remember that Passenger Shaming is a place to highlight unacceptable behaviors, not to body-shame people. Tune into this episode above, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Featured image: American Airlines A321T business-class cabin, by Alberto Riva/TPG)
Shawn Kathleen: Let’s get the movement going so we can shut it down.
Brian Kelly: So we can cancel Passenger Shaming once and for all.
Shawn Kathleen: Yes, cancel it.
Brian Kelly: Welcome to this episode of Talking Points. I’m your host, Brian Kelly, The Points Guy. You know, I get to travel a lot and, for some reason, it seems like people’s behavior on planes is getting worse and worse. And even though I’m an eternal optimist and I do believe we are in the current Golden Age of Travel because air travel’s safer than ever before; it’s more accessible and cheaper compared to deregulation. However, airport behavior and flight behavior seems to be getting worse, and the reason why I know this is because of an Instagram account I follow that pretty much confirms it. Passenger Shaming is one of the fastest growing aviation Instagram accounts out there and it covers all bad behaviors of passengers.
Brian Kelly: Today, we have Shawn Kathleen who is the mastermind behind the Passenger Shaming brand. Shawn, SK going forward. SK, thank you for joining us.
Shawn Kathleen: Thank you, Brian. I appreciate it; aka BK, what’s up?
Brian Kelly: SK and BK. Let’s just talk about your background. So you used to be a flight attendant.
Shawn Kathleen: I was for seven years, but prior to that, I was a police officer and a paramedic.
Brian Kelly: Oh, wow. So you’re used to just bad behavior. Period.
Shawn Kathleen: Correct.
Brian Kelly: Especially though on metal tubes, so you’re just like … so you’ve seen it all.
Shawn Kathleen: I have. I have seen it all and I can say with pretty much 100% certainty that being a flight attendant would probably be a lot worse than being a police officer. In my experience.
Brian Kelly: In terms of respect.
Shawn Kathleen: All of it.
Brian Kelly: Yeah.
Shawn Kathleen: Respect, OK. I might’ve been able to — because I had a gun. So there was that, right? So that wasn’t a thing as a flight attendant. However, you don’t get the respect, you know, and it’s a different service industry, obviously.
Brian Kelly: And being a flight attendant, I’m curious to know your thoughts. Do you believe that flight attendants are overusing their power? Because, from a passenger perspective, you know flight attendants kind of have this reputation, on certain airlines specifically, of being mean and passengers are getting in the way of their job. Do you feel that that is prevalent out there or is that more of the outlier?
Shawn Kathleen: I don’t think it’s prevalent, I do feel it’s more of an outlier. However, I 100% agree with you because there are those who get that little teeny bit of power, and no, I’m not guilty because I’m a former police officer. I can promise you because we’re trained on how to de-escalate situations. So like you’re not going around and being the person that’s like, “Put your phone away.” You know, “… your seat belt,” blah, blah, you know. But I do think it is more of an outlier situation and I also would like to say, moreover, it’s worse for the flight attendant who has to be with that person for four days. Like imagine like you’re sitting in a seat and you’re dealing with somebody that’s like the whole power trip crap.
Brian Kelly: Trip … because you usually get multi-day trips with them, right?
Shawn Kathleen: Yes, and it’s like two to four days and then I’m like literally on the end of the cart and I’m behind him or her going like, “Sorry, sorry.” You know, like it’s so awful.
Brian Kelly: All right, now we’re going to take a quick pause to hear from our sponsors.
Brian Kelly: When you start a flight are you normally like OK, in a good mood until people just start pushing your buttons? And is it every flight that someone pushes a button or …?
Shawn Kathleen: Yes and yes. Though … OK, I mean I do need to be honest because I wasn’t like … especially towards the end. I did this for about seven years. I was a flight attendant and I mean I was having anxiety, the night before and/or driving to the airport, like how am I going to get …?
Brian Kelly: Mostly due to passengers?
Shawn Kathleen: Yeah, like exactly.
Brian Kelly: It’s not like necessarily the schedule or whatever? It’s really just the —
Shawn Kathleen: Oh no, no. Well, fatigue it amplifies everything, which is a thing. You know, there’s a lot of fatigue involved. Although the FAA does regulate that, you know, that to a point.
Brian Kelly: But still, even though you can only have a certain amount of flight hours, you can still be delayed and so many flight attendants, because they’re not paid well are … at the end of their shift they’ve then got to fly again. So even though there’s a certain amount of FAA hours in the air, flight attendants work a lot more than … what is the average? Like it’s like 25 hours a month in air or something like that?
Shawn Kathleen: Oh no, it’s like 100.
Brian Kelly: Oh. Oh no, yeah, 25 a week, yeah yeah.
Shawn Kathleen: I’ve done like 145 in a month.
Brian Kelly: And that time starts when the door closes to the time that you land so it’s not delayed boardings, kicking passengers off because they’re being …
Shawn Kathleen: Yeah, exactly. So that entire shit show we call a boarding process, that’s just a freebie. Like, “Can I get a water? I need to take a pill,” you know, whatever. “Help me with the bag, yada, yada.” By the way, flight attendants technically can’t put your bag up for you. They can, I’m doing air quotes, “assist you,” but they can’t do it for you because obviously the airline’s not into like, “Hey we’re going to have 8 million people out with back injuries,” and that includes pilots and when you see the flight crew hanging out on the airplane or … I could promise you, your crew is just as motivated to get going and leave that the passenger —
Brian Kelly: Yeah, they don’t like to wait.
Shawn Kathleen: — Yeah, what’s the point? Like when there’s bad weather, you’re not happy about it because guess who’s not getting paid to sit there?
Brian Kelly: And I sit at the gate so often and see people berate gate agents as well for the weather or —
Shawn Kathleen: I can’t imagine.
Brian Kelly: — You know, and gate agents are paid even less than flight attendants. They really deal with the brunt of that like consumer backlash. Flyers think that it’s the gate agent’s fault for not communicating. It’s like they’re just getting information from up top.
Shawn Kathleen: Oh yeah, yeah. Exactly. And the same thing with flight attendants, like how am I responsible for a thunderstorm? We get, and I say “we,” former flight attendant, but understand, hey the frustration. We’re in the same boat to be honest with you because like I mentioned, you’re not getting paid, you’re losing time, you’re on the clock for fatigue with the FAA, you know, yada, yada, and we still have like three more flights to go and who knows what’s going to happen?
Brian Kelly: What’s the most amount of flights you’ve done in a single day?
Shawn Kathleen: Seven.
Brian Kelly: Seven? Wow.
Shawn Kathleen: Yeah, it was at a smaller airline but I did seven.
Brian Kelly: Why did you start Passenger Shaming? And was it Instagram at first, or it was a Facebook page, right?
Shawn Kathleen: It was, so it was actually a little before TPG when I was called, “Rants of a Sassy Stew,” which is still a thing. So, I was like, “The Sassy Stew,” and I was still flying at the time and so this is how Passenger Shaming did start. Essentially, I would be flying and I would be getting the craziest … like just the crazy questions everything that you know Passenger Shaming to be would be …
Brian Kelly: And this was confidential or this, you were to be anonymous? Yes.
Shawn Kathleen: Anonymous, 100%. This was 2007.
Brian Kelly: So you’d come home from a frustrating day and be like, “Oh I got to tell a story.”
Shawn Kathleen: Oh no, Brian, I was on the plane. I was on the plane with an actual journal and a pen. I know people find that hard to believe, you know like not electronic devices, like I actually had a pen and a journal, old school. You know, somebody would ask me some crazy question and like “Ding!” I’d go over there and they’d say like, “Are we moving?” And I’m like “What the …?” So I would literally run to the back and I would just start journaling stuff. Well, my colleagues started reading it and they we’re like, “This is really funny,” and they’re like, “You should start a blog.” And I’m like, “What’s a blog?” And so I started out as Blogspot and I was “Rants of a Sassy Stew” Blogspot thing and then at some point, it kind of gained some traction, so then I was —
Brian Kelly: Was it mostly other flight attendants reading it at first?
Shawn Kathleen: Yeah, it was for the most part, but there were a significant amount of frequent flyers. And I’ll tell you, here’s the other thing, everything that I wrote about, anybody that has worked in the service industry gets it. It’s not even an aviation thing at that point. You know, it’s just dealing with customers. So it did pretty well and I purchased a domain and then that was going great. At some point, even though I was following the social media policies and everything, it was discovered and as I wasn’t using my name, I think at some point there was a media outlet that wanted to do an interview and I did something. But I even blacked out my wings like it was a whole thing I was very … I adhered it perfectly.
Shawn Kathleen: So it was essentially me writing about all the experiences. It was a comedic … It was 100% true. The only thing I changed was the details like where …
Brian Kelly: The details, like customer names or the flight number, yeah.
Shawn Kathleen: Exactly. The number of flight attendants and like where I was flying to, because if I would’ve said Atlanta, they’d be like, “Oh she works at Delta” or whatever. I kept receiving photographs and crew members would send me photographs like of crazy stuff that now you know as Passenger Shaming, but at one point which was now almost six years ago, I said, “Let me do a little sister site, you know a little offshoot.” And I came up with the name Passenger Shaming and one day I was somewhere and somebody said to me, a Texan or like, “Hey, they’re talking about you, or about Passenger Shaming on The Today Show or something.” And I’m like, “Really? That’s bizarre.” And then somebody’s like, “Oh, they’re talking about you on GMA.” And then CNN —
Brian Kelly: Was there one photo or video that really popped?
Shawn Kathleen: There really wasn’t.
Brian Kelly: And so it was just because you started, and just consistent sort of growth?
Shawn Kathleen: I did see consistent growth. Obviously, there was a photo that did make that pop because otherwise I wouldn’t have received all of that media attention within a three-day time frame, right? I don’t recall what that was, but whatever it was, somebody had picked it up who had a large following.
Brian Kelly: Did the airline start to get prickly about it?
Shawn Kathleen: No, this was when I was … after I was a flight attendant. I apologize. So I was working just a regular job outside of being a … once I had left being a flight attendant because I did lose my job due to the social media.
Brian Kelly: Interesting. And at that point, you weren’t monetizing or anything. So was that a scary moment or was that kind of like you’re done with airlines anyway because of the anxiety and everything?
Shawn Kathleen: Oh, I was so done with it but I really wanted to get my job back so that I could quit. Like I’m that person. So that’s the truth but, you know, what am I going to do? Spend thousands of dollars to get it? I did actually see an attorney. They’re like, “Look you’re in the right. It’s all good.” I’m like, hmm … however many thousands of dollars?”
Brian Kelly: Maybe this is a sign, yeah.
Shawn Kathleen: And again, I was on my way out. I mean, actually, I did it seven years. I was on my way out at probably year two and a half.
Brian Kelly: OK. So Passenger Shaming takes off and it just consistently starts growing. At what point did you know like, oh wow, this is a thing? There’s so many celebrities follow you, Kelly Ripa, every time I go on her show we always, she’s always like, “Did you see Passenger Shaming the other day?” Yeah, she raves about you.
Shawn Kathleen: She’s so funny because her husband is the person who was following me first and she was like, “I can’t commit to the follow at this point because it’s too disturbing.” And now she’s obsessed with it like for a couple years. But as far as your question, that’s a good one because it was pretty rapid. I feel like I had a pretty decent, what I thought was a pretty respectable amount of followers and, to be honest with you, I was not really keeping track because keep in mind at the time I’m doing Sassy Stew and I’m doing Passenger Shaming. So I’m two things by myself, alone, and again, this has been 12 years now. That’s when I started.
Brian Kelly: And so let’s talk about, how do you choose content? So it’s all reader submissions, like people are DM-ing you all the time on Instagram. Do you get a lot of fake stuff? Do you have to like vet? Is this real? Has this been doctored, etc.?
Shawn Kathleen: I definitely can vet it to the point where I can vet it. And I feel like it’s pretty obvious to most. I mean just to a prudent person like what looks legitimate, what doesn’t and maybe my former life as a flight attendant helps with that situation.
Brian Kelly: Do people ever reach out to you and say, “Hey, that’s me. Can you take it down?”
Shawn Kathleen: I’ve had that happen one time. The only other one where somebody reached out was somebody who thought it was hysterical because her sister found it and she was cute, like a young girl like in her early 20s.
Brian Kelly: She’s like, “Tag me in it.”
Shawn Kathleen: Yeah, right? Like, oh my god, like please. But she was so cute because this was at the very beginning actually and she is sitting in her seat with the tray table down and she’s sitting cross-legged with her legs on the tray table. Like how, don’t ask me. I don’t know, but she thought it was cute I mean and she thought it was funny.
Brian Kelly: So how many do you post a day now? Is it just as many good ones as you get or do you now plan out content. Is there an editorial calendar you know, Christmas is coming up like let’s have oversize carry-ons, or —
Shawn Kathleen: Right, right. I let the content direct me. Like the majority of it does obviously come from passengers, which by the way, when we were talking about when I started Passenger Shaming and it was almost exclusively crew members that sent in photos, now it’s 99% passengers. It’s people who don’t want to sit next to that guy, right? So it obviously struck a chord.
Brian Kelly: What does it take to shock you these days?
Shawn Kathleen: Not a lot.
Brian Kelly: I’ll say there was one recently with a special present in the … and actually when I was talking to Kelly Ripa, she’s like, it was right around the time where there was the human feces in the sink.
Shawn Kathleen: Oh, God.
Brian Kelly: That was pretty like, wow. That just shook me to the core.
Shawn Kathleen: You know what? I’ll tell you what one actually did shock me recently. This guy who’s sitting on the plane and you could see it, he has like a wound on his leg. Now keep in mind —
Brian Kelly: Oh wait. I think I know this one.
Shawn Kathleen: I’ve worked in a level-one trauma center, I’ve been a paramedic, like that stuff I don’t get bothered by things, but I was like, oh, God. It was grim.
Brian Kelly: And leaking, right?
Shawn Kathleen: It was really grim. It was, yeah I can’t even say it. But it’s on there you can find, it’s … Then don’t hate me and unfollow me, because I mean I will get somebody that’ll be like, “Oh, I’m unfollowing you now.” And I’m like, “All right, bye.”
Brian Kelly: Bye-bye, enjoy other free content.
Shawn Kathleen: Yeah, like exactly.
Brian Kelly: But let’s talk about where you draw the line, right? Because you’re not shaming people, fat-shaming or … So what are your rules like where you won’t, you know?
Shawn Kathleen: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah absolutely. So that’s the thing, we shame behaviors only, that’s it. So not based on weight, appearance, anything in that nature, and I can promise you, I get those pictures a lot. You know, someone who might be overweight and they’re like, “Oh look this person’s spilling over to my seat.” No, I will tell you I even go as far as to maybe not post something, even though it’s behavior-related and the person might be overweight or there might be another reason that someone’s going to make fun of them and that’s not the intention. Yeah, so this is behaviors only and look. And if you want to be an asshole on an airplane, then maybe you can be on Passenger Shaming.
Brian Kelly: When you’re flying, are you always looking for something or do you not look for stuff?
Shawn Kathleen: I absolutely don’t anymore, no. Here’s the thing, I’m the person that’s trying to fly in the last row of an airplane like legitimately. Now again, might be my former lives combined but I want to be by an exit and I don’t have to be in the first row or in business class or first class. It’s, I’m fine in the last row, but now I kind of almost want to be in the first row only for the fact that I don’t have to see what’s going on while I’m in the back row and I’m seeing everything that’s happening and then I start getting like PTS, like when I see like the guy get up, you know like we land and then he stands up. Or I’ll watch them trying to put a bag that’s obviously not going to fit and they’re like, “But it fit on the last flight. I always fly with this bag.”
Brian Kelly: Yeah, as they’re on like a little regional jet. “It fit on a triple seven.”
Shawn Kathleen: Yeah exactly. Yeah I was like, “Yeah, you we’re on an A380.” You know what I mean? Like no, it’s not going to fit on an Embraer 145, that’s not a thing. It does give me anxiety if I start to even really try to pay attention.
Brian Kelly: OK, let’s take a quick pause right now and hear from our sponsors.
Brian Kelly: Do you think we’re getting better or worse as passengers?
Shawn Kathleen: I hate to say, worse. Like you I want to be an optimist and listen, ideally I would like there to not be a Passenger Shaming. That’s my goal. Like I don’t want there to have to be a Passenger Shaming. I don’t think that’s going to happen in my lifetime unfortunately. However, it’s the sense of entitlement …
Brian Kelly: Yeah, like let’s get to the root cause. So like why, when an otherwise smart and socially intelligent person why, when they step on a metal tube does all … is it like stress? Is it because someone blamed the airlines for basic economy, not telling consumers what they can and can’t bring, changing the rules, making coach tighter?
Shawn Kathleen: Sure. I get what a lot of people say 100%. I get a lot of where people think that I’m essentially speaking on behalf of all airlines or all flight crew. That’s not the case. I’m a traveler as well as are your crew members, right? And they want your flight to be pleasant and for you to be happy because who wants to be stuck for the next three hours on a plane as a flight attendant with somebody who’s pissed off about something, right? Because it’s not like you can call a manager or the police because you have to take care of every security, medical emergency, anything that happens.
Shawn Kathleen: So as far as what has brought us to where we are today, I think it’s pretty much everything that you mentioned. It’s a culmination of all of that. The sense of entitlement is really high with a lot of people these days and they feel like, “Hey, you know I spent a few hundred dollars for my ticket, I can do whatever I want on this plane. If that means take my bare feet and put them up on the headrest or whatever.”
Brian Kelly: Clip my toenails because I’m a busy girl on the go.
Brian Kelly: So let’s end this with some five tips. Let’s start with bare feet because I think this is a hot-button issue because a lot of people say, “I’m on vacation in the Bahamas. I’m going to wear my flip-flops on the plane.” So your thoughts on bare feet on planes. Is it ever acceptable?
Shawn Kathleen: No.
Brian Kelly: And there you have it.
Shawn Kathleen: Well, you know, because you follow and anybody who follows Passenger Shaming on Instagram knows. Listen, that’s a thing for me. However, you know what? If you feel the need to travel in your flip-flops and you just went to Turks and Caicos and you’re living your best life, live your best life, but go to the Dollar Store or wherever and get yourself a nice pair of just socks that you can throw on, because I know Brian knows that the amenity kits have those in there, right? You know if you’re up front. So if you’re not and you’re traveling —
Brian Kelly: I saw something interesting recently, besides the fact that a lot of people just don’t want to look at a bare foot, it is dangerous to to be walking around. There’s shards of glass on planes. They’re not cleaned that much. So from a safety perspective too, it makes sense to wear regular footwear on planes.
Shawn Kathleen: 100%. I’ll break it down, no bare feet. Absolutely not. I don’t care unless maybe you fractured your foot on vacation. You’re on holiday and you like —
Brian Kelly: Medical.
Shawn Kathleen: Yeah, there’s a medical issue and you lost a couple digits or something. That’s different, right? Like that’s OK. Other than that, negative.
Brian Kelly: Feet on bulkhead.
Shawn Kathleen: Come on, stop.
Brian Kelly: What about just if your legs are crossed and the top of your toe hits the bulkhead?
Shawn Kathleen: OK, that’s fine.
Brian Kelly: OK, because sometimes I’m so tall, it like will push against … but I try my hardest not to.
Shawn Kathleen: But you’re a normal human being. You know what I’m saying?
Brian Kelly: But like, so the leg’s wide up in the air?
Shawn Kathleen: No. Like where you look like you’re at a doctor’s appointment, you know what I’m saying? Like don’t do that and that is so big because we always do like the respect the bulkhead essentially because here’s the thing. What people don’t understand and this falls along the lines of the entitlement like, “Hey I paid X amount. Like I’m going to be able to treat this 100 million dollar aircraft however I want.” I’m like: A) it’s not yours; B) not your living room, like that’s not where you are, you’re on public transportation. You’re not the only person on the aircraft. There’s other people.”
Shawn Kathleen: Just a little heads up, bulkheads break, OK? They do break. I’ve seen them, after repeated wear and tear they bow. They separate from the fuselage. They break and I’m going to tell you, don’t be pissed off when you’re sitting at the gate and they’re like, “Oh we have a six-hour delay because we have to fly in a bulkhead because that aircraft cannot operate without one. Period and end of story so …
Brian Kelly: Never thought … yeah, because a lot of them aren’t fully, you know, they’re just like screwed in.
Shawn Kathleen: Exactly. And you’ll see, they come in different varieties and some might somehow be a part of the galley.
Brian Kelly: Let’s talk about hair. So women’s hair, long hair because men have long hair too that creeps over … I had one where it was in my Bloody Mary —
Shawn Kathleen: Of course.
Brian Kelly: I think you shared it, actually. So some people say, “Hey look, long hair, it’s hard to control.” Like what are your thoughts?
Shawn Kathleen: If you’re a female or a male and you have long hair, please be aware of where it’s hanging and that also goes for putting your coat over the seat. Just like somebody’s long hair, coat like you’re covering up the inflight entertainment or your sleeves are like in my Bloody Mary. You know, like stop.
Brian Kelly: Final tip so people should know or ones that are kind of maybe on the borderline that people don’t realize are actually like no-nos.
Shawn Kathleen: You mean like other than just bored, sit down and not say anything? Just shut up? You know what? One of my best tips is like to thank your crew and/or acknowledge their existence because I can promise you, when you’re sitting their at that forward galley and you’re welcoming people on board and you’re like, “Welcome aboard. Hi, Sir. Have a great evening or whatever,” and they look at you and then they just turn their head and walk down the aisle, you’re like, “Am I here? Like I’m having an existential crisis right now.” Like I’m asking another flight attendant like, “Am I here? Am I a body? Is this, I’m an apparition? Like what?” Like if you are nice and you kind of remember the really horrible people. But I’m going to tell you what. I’m going to remember like the Brian Kelly that’s on my flight, and it’s like, “Hey, I’ve done this a million times and I’m not going to be an a-hole.”
Brian Kelly: Final questions, are you a window or aisle-seat girl?
Shawn Kathleen: You know what? I’m so low-maintenance, I really don’t care. I just don’t want the middle.
Brian Kelly: And for the record the middle seat gets both armrests, correct?
Shawn Kathleen: You know what? Let’s settle it right now. I get questions all the time on Passenger Shaming and that’s one of them and I’m like, “Listen, the Passenger Shaming person has spoken. If you get the dreaded middle seat amongst the, as we call them, “unwashed masses,” guess what? You get — boop — just like spread out because you get both of them.”
Brian Kelly: For the record, signed, sealed, delivered, this has been written in aviation history.
Shawn Kathleen: It’s official.
Brian Kelly: It is official. So if you don’t already follow @PassengerShaming, and I just looked right now, you’re just under 900,000, you’ll get a million before you know it.
Brian Kelly: We’re actually in a studio in Brooklyn today. We filmed some pretty fun content, collaboration between Passenger Shaming and The Points Guy coming soon, so stay tuned for that. Follow Passenger Shaming and of course The Points Guy and I’m Brian Kelly. We’ll be posting all of that content soon enough. SK, thank you for coming in and sharing you’re knowledge. Hopefully the Passenger Shaming gospel can get …
Shawn Kathleen: Let’s get the movement going so we can shut it down.
Brian Kelly: So we can cancel Passenger Shaming once and for all.
Shawn Kathleen: Yes cancel it and thank you so much for everything. I had a blast here in Brooklyn, I can’t wait for everybody to see what we did, it’s been fun so thank you. I appreciate it.
Brian Kelly: That’s it for this episode of Talking Points. A huge, huge thank you to Shawn Kathleen of Passenger Shaming and to the best podcast team in the biz, Margaret Kelley, Caroline Schagrin and my amazing assistant Christie Matsui. Until next episode, safe travels.
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