American Airlines Meeting Passengers At The Airport To Warn Them Against ‘Throwaway Ticketing’

A flight from DC to Milwaukee via Chicago might be cheaper than flying non-stop to Chicago. So you add the connection from Chicago to Milwaukee, even though you don’t plan to take it. That’s throwaway ticketing.

You save money, but you’re breaking airline rules. You think you’re buying a seat on both the DC to Chicago and Chicago to Milwaukee flights, and you should be able to do whatever you wish with your seat (take the flight or not take the flight). The airline thinks they’re selling you a ticket from DC to Milwaukee and argues that’s a different product than a flight from DC to Chicago. Airlines have tried to crack down on the practice for years.

A reader was recently approached by American Airlines customer service staff at the airport and warned against throwaway ticketing. Here’s their story,

I booked a hidden city ticket …[Charleston to Philadelphia to Washington National airport, and s]aved a few bucks, maybe $25 or so [compared to buying Charleston – Philadelphia non-stop].

When I went to check in online, the app and the website wouldn’t allow me and said I had to go to the counter.

Went to the priority lane, counter agent was pleasant even though it was 5:30am in the morning and he said I couldn’t check in online because he had to give me a warning about hidden-city ticketing. I played dumb and asked what that was and he explained.

He followed on to say that the warning is that they are watching me and if I don’t continue on to DCA on my flight this morning, I will be put on a list and I have the potential to have my Platinum status revoked. I just said ok and thanks and went on my way. Cancelled my flight to DCA as soon as I landed, and we will see what they have to say.

The reader uses hidden city ticketing regularly, it seems, and even when the savings are modest. And he attaches his AAdvantage number to the reservation.

  • I recommend against using your frequent flyer number. Credit to a different partner airline. You can still be tracked, but why make it easier for the airline?

  • This may be tempting to do when the savings are significant. I’ve seen cases where the difference is over $1000. I’d give it a miss over $25.

American warned him not to drop the Philadelphia to DC segment, and he did anyway. He assumes American will take his elite status and his miles. I’d have recommended flying to DC and then flying or taking the train back to Philadelphia, and cooling it on hidden city tickets for awhile, after being confronted by the airline.

The New York Times’ Ethicist said it’s ok to do throwaway ticketing. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia did it. But there are risks.

United Airlines threatened to trash the credit of customers who skip flights by sending them to collections. Lufthansa sued a passenger over it.

If you’re going to use hidden city ticketing, here are the key things to remember:

  • Don’t check bags, they’ll go to the final destination on your ticket not where you’re getting off
  • Don’t put your preferred frequent flyer number in the reservation, an airline can shut down your frequent flyer account
  • Be prepared to explain the need for your original routing in the event of flight delays and cancellations
  • Don’t be the last to board – you don’t want to have to gate check your bag
  • Only drop the last segment of your itinerary, otherwise the rest of your flights you do want to take will be cancelled
  • Don’t do this super regularly where you’ll attract unwanted attention from the airline

Finally, you may be able to do this completely legitimately if you have your tickets issued in Italy.

About Gary Leff

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

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  1. This has been going on for 20+ years. I used to fly AA from IND – DFW and 25 years ago the round trip ticket could be a $1000. You could fly AA from IND to OKC via DFW for $200.00. So I’d buy that ticket and get off in DFW and be on my way. Then they started cancelling the return portion of your ticket. To keep from getting in the cross hairs of AA I’d just fly to OKC and rent a car and drive back. It wasn’t my money but I wanted to save my employer money whenever I could. Rental cars were much cheaper in OKC than DFW as well so it was OK. A bit of a round trip drive but better than getting your return trip cancelled or them cancelling your account. A couple of time weather was so bad they were cancelling flights to OKC from DFW and I went to the gate agent and explained what I was doing. They went in and made notes and let me get off in DFW and fly back from DFW without any issues from the airline. Risking your status and miles for $25 isn’t a good investment in my opinion.

  2. Forcing customers suspected of throw away ticketing to do an airport counter check-in. Hmmm interesting. Not here to argue the ethics of throw away tickets (I’ve engaged in it myself) but this new airline tactic could be an effective deterrence, no?

  3. It just absolutely trips me out that this person is AA Platinum and booking hidden city tickets … over $25! $25!? Seriously? How is this person AA Platinum if $25 is going to bust their budget?

  4. @Stu – customers in every status level span a wide range of net worth. $25 means little to an old fart (such as yourself?) who’s had many decades to earn a living. $25 means a week or two worth of meals to a student who has had travel expenses, but not living expenses, covered by a grant or fellowship.

  5. I think AA corporate management is wrong to give on-the-ground staff the extra burden of lecturing customers on hidden city. These bullshit burdens placed on frontline workers are one reason why AA customer service is notoriously bad.

  6. @ Jason – I don’t think there should be any lecturing period. Rules are the rules, you break them there is a price to pay. Rather than a customer service or gate agent lecturing the passenger customer relations should send them a letter. Why risk an altercation in the airport?

    As far as AA customer service being notoriously is because they can get away with it. I thought customer service in the 90’s was excellent but after 9/11 and they weaponized the crew and gate agents it just started going down hill and continues to gather steam. The only resolution I see is for AA to go away and the employees go to other carriers and break the cycle of bad customer service.

  7. I’m surprised they would leave this to airport agents. I know in employee memos, United, tells its employees not to confront passengers. They advise reporting any discrepancy to corporate security, and let them conduct an investigation having access to all the historical data about the pax and their travel patterns.

    Also has anyone heard of this beyond the 1 anecdote?

    People have been doing hidden city and thorw away ticketing for 30+ years so I don’t see much changing.

  8. Looking to accrue elite benefits while Hidden City Ticketing, seems like a little much. Save the $$$ with hidden city ticketing, OR accrue elite benefits… one or the other. Trying to do both is asking for trouble.

  9. Bringing a carry on luggage can also be an issue. AA has been known to force you to check your luggage at the gate. No storage left in the airplane…

  10. He put himself on the radar buying CHS-PHL-DCA when AA has multiple direct CHS-DCA flights at the same or similar cost. That and including his AAdvantage number…he made it too easy to be found.

  11. “$25 means a week or two worth of meals to a student” It still does buy a lot of Ramen Noodles.

    I know a guy who will pay thousands of dollars for an international business class ticket, stay in hotels for 2-3 weeks, then make his wife pick him up late night at the airport when he returns, just to save $35 on a cab fare. Plus the entire time he’s gone, he’s hooking up with as many different women as he can. What a gem, eh.

  12. Gary, how do the airlines feel about you teaching your readers how to trick them by now following the rules? I would think they wo7ld want to revoke your account too.

  13. I have a variation that I’ve done a number of times and even with AA help, but I can see why they didn’t care. I would book international trips that would use DFW as the return gateway and then skip the onward flight to my home and instead hop on a flight to Miami for work using separate ticket. I’ve had agents fix the Miami portion when my incoming flight was delayed without problem. I am literally skipping the final leg but not to save money.

  14. @Steve Raatz – A passenger posted a video showing how to circumvent Spirit Airlines carry on bag fees, and was banned from flying Spirit. I wrote about that passenger’s trick and their ban. Spirit expressly told me that doing so would not entail a ban.

    But airlines can do pretty much anything they want with their programs with impunity under Northwest v Ginsburg and a DOT whose own Inspector General says improperly ignores complaints about frequent flyer programs, so… sure an airline can ban you for anything, maybe that will happen to me.

  15. For everyone making an issue of “why bother over $25?” you should read “The Millionaire Next Door.”
    Most of us worth over 1M did not get there by earning large salaries but by being frugal. I’m positive I’m not the only one in this game for that very reason.
    Shopping sales, clipping coupons, driving 9 year old Camrys, etc.
    But I certainly have enjoyed my F tix on Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, and many others.

  16. I have more than once booked a flight with a connection rather than non-stop in order to save $$, but I was always going to the end point. Why do airlines have such confusing pricing?

  17. “Skiplagged” is the website that does all this for you. You don’t have to figure it out. Go to their website and fill in the boxes as to where you want to go. Skiplagged does the rest.
    LS

  18. @Mbh – I think there’s a difference between being frugal or careful, picking up even small wins, and breaking rules and jeopardizing relationships over $25.

  19. If the story was true that AA did not allow him to check-in online, warned him at the counter, and he still did it, he really was looking for trouble.

    Now back to the discussion, when we purchase a ticket, we always get an email with trip info, plus baggage and other rules at the end of the email. That is a “legal contract” between airline and customer. Does anywhere in the email stating that there would be penalty if one does hidden city ticketing? I am not sure if carriers post that rule on their websites either. They might, but 98% of us just buy tickets. Really who reads all those rules before buying? But I am not an attorney… If the airline already warns you, do not do it.

  20. Are the rules fair? Why is a non-stop more expensive than the same flight with an added connection? Are these pricing practices fair? So is a flight from A to B a different product from a flight from A to B before continuing to C? Airline pricing is incomprehensible to consumers and yet the airlines are taking consumers to court? The government already required more transparent pricing by exposing the “hidden fees”. This effort did not go far enough.

  21. IT IS ALL ABOUT LEGAL ROUTINGS! As I am now retired from 35 happy years in the airline industry I will tell you a few stories about fares and enforcement. I started with a large US carrier in reservations. Regardless of what people may say about it, I loved it. I often couldn’t wait to get to work and sit in front of the new wide screen reservation program the airline had recently introduced and talk to people and see what was going on that day. There are a few reasons why fare structures work the way they do and most people do not understand why the fares are structured to enable hidden city fares. Looking at the CHS-MKE via ORD it is possible a low cost airline(B) was offering a low nonstop fare from CHS to MKE. The passengers airline of choice(A) also flies a few RT flights a day ORD-MKE-to accommodate their MKE passengers coming from the west and south. Airline A will do anything in their routing structure to match a fare from DCA-MKE. A reservation agent can use any number of routings from city to city. A DCA-MKE fare may be a “legal” (airline jargon) routing via LGA, PIT, CVG, CLE, ORD, or DTW, GRR, or any number of cities and odd connections as long as the final destination is MKE. My first airline reservations job was with NW in MSP. A passenger in MSP going to MIA would prefer a nonstop MSP-MIA. Occasionally NW would offer a MSP-MIA fare for $99. Seats on the nonstop MSP-MIA flights were heavily booked and it could be difficult to get a seat at that price. A res. agent could check the routings (time consuming) and book the passenger to any city along the routing as long as the passenger remained on NW and all of the cities were on the legal routing; MSP-MSN-ORD-ATL-TPA-MIA. All legal and the same fare as the MSP-MIA. To find this information an agent would have to put the passenger on hold, take off their headset, grab a piece of paper and pencil, run across the room and find a huge large book with the current routings and jot down the legal cities on the routing, run back to the phone and start searching for seats along the routing. Nowadays the routings are built into the programs so it’s a matter of pulling up the routings between two cities. If AA is offering a $99 fare LAX-EWR and all the nonstop flights on a certain day were unavailable a clever res. agent could route the passenger LAX-SLC-DEN-DSM-ORD-IND-CLE-PIT-DCA-EWR as long as AA flew each city pair, the connecting times were legal in each city pair, and the final city on the routing was EWR. Perhaps this example is the clearest when pointing out hidden city fares. AA’s lowest fare LAX to IND is $269. The passenger purchases the EWR fare for $99 and flies no further then IND. He just saved $70. Wow! if AA had a nonstop LAX-IND, all the better. Purchase an LAX-IND-EWR fare and throw the ticket away in IND. until the early 2000’s most domestic fares were always shown as RT. Using a hidden-city fare can be very tricky on a round trip ticket. When the passenger flying the LAX-IND-EWR fare was ready to board his return flight to LAX using the LAX-IND-EWR-IND-LAX $199 RT ticket. Now the passenger is confronted with the chance his reservation was completely cancelled when he no showed the IND-EWR leg. It could be embarrassing and costly. If the passenger was sharp he could use the excuse he became ill in IND and took a later flight into EWR, etc. To avoid the unpleasant and costly experience in IND it would be best to call res. few hours before check-in to make sure he still had the reservation. If the reservation was cancelled (rare) it would be best to thrown the ticket away and figure out a different plan getting to LAX.
    This is getting long, but it’s a bit complicated, however the Customer Service Agent in Indianapolis has more important things to take care of, like getting the next flight out on time, then manually checking the reservations with the final boarding manifest. There is too much pressure to work each flight and get it out then to sit comparing who did and did not board the IND-EWR flight. Nowadays there are software systems to do the work so it depends on the policy of each carrier. Those travelers who remember paper tickets and the stacks of tickets, paperwork, and getting the aircraft boarded and getting the flight on its way realize how the reservation systems of the 90s even compared to 2020 were fairly loose and flexible. Do you Remember checking-in for a flight only to find you had no reservation? It rarely happens today! Get an understanding of hidden cities, be cautious, courteous, keep a low profile and perhaps a hidden city will work out! Incidentally I retired from the airline after 26 years as an international purser. I also loved that great job also!

  22. paul, thank you. very instructive for someone whose first flight was braniff fr detroit to mexico city. 1966.

  23. So after all these years why do the airlines charge a lower price for a destination that is one stop beyond where you want to go? God almighty charge the correct fare based on mileage to begin with and/or stop the two stop flight and do only one stop to each City. Get over your pricing tricks and you won’t have passengers smarter than you are. Eh?

  24. @Paul Hagstrom has it very well explained. To put it in simpler terms, it is all about competition. Very often a flight to an airline’s hub has no competition. If I want to go to ATL I have one nonstop choice. They can charge a higher price. If I want to go to RIC via ATL I have a bunch of connection options, so it really isn’t surprising at all that the competition make the latter cheaper.

  25. I currently work for AA and this is a *DAILY* situation where we, as gate agents; are dealing with people who have purchased these “hidden city” fares. Every person who purchases these fares knows *exactly* what they are doing and what the consequences are. It is illegal to purchase a ticket where your intentions are not to fly to the final destination. The airline has every right to go after these individuals for the difference it would cost to purchase a direct flight from the origin city to the connection city. It has happened and the airlines will continue to do this to recoup costs associated with it. Good Luck to those attempting to purchase hidden city fares.

  26. As a Gate Agent and ticket counter agent (we bid both) for AA, let me tell you what it what. We can spot a hidden city ticket a mile away. Hence, they are now having you check in at the airport and inhibiting your check in online. Why? To let you know, we know. Not telling you how, but will tell you why we care. Its our jobs and profit sharing (which is a joke now but still, $50 is $50). The more revenue we contain the more secure we are, pre-pandemic. In your business do you overlook leakage? nope. At the gate, when we see you as a hidden city, we do call you up and confront you with your choices – purchase the one way fare as it prices today or don’t fly. We know you don’t have bags checked as you’re going to jump off on the connection. Pay or stay.

    Then, if I’m working a flight and there are no-shows, we look at your ticket. Typically a one way and you jumped off. We queue your record to Hidden City queue, and AA does the rest with informing you of your fate. Pay the difference, or lose your status if you have status, or if they have a file on you of many hidden city no shows, you get on the no-fly list.

    AA ain’t playing and I’m 100 that neither is UA, DL, B6, WN, F9, and the rest of them.

    Pay, don’t play. You can and will get stuck. Technology is not your friend but it is ours!

  27. @918Sarge – I agree with you 100%. As I have stated earlier, I would buy a ticket to OKC through DFW and then rent a car and drive back to DFW. The cost savings justified the windshield time. Once or twice when flights went south going to OKC I’d explain what the situation was to a CS person (gate agent, etc.) and they would work with me to fix the ticket so that I didn’t violate the terms of my ticket. I’ve taken connections to get to a final destination to get a less expensive fare but I never tried to cheat the system once they announced that hidden city flights were not going to be tolerated. Passengers that do it know what they are doing is wrong and they deserve whatever penalties they get.

  28. @GAATE AGENT – You don’t know what you’re talking about. How exactly can you spot a hidden city ticket “a mile away”? Most (and by most I mean 99% of agents) don’t know or don’t care unless corporate security has flagged the itinerary/individual flying. Also what does traveling with no luggage have anything to do with it? I travel on one-way itineraries all the time with no luggage, and have never done hidden city ticketing, if I book the flight I fly it. Based on your comment, it seems like you confront anyone with a connection? Maybe you need to stop judging and go back to clearing non-revs like your job entails.

  29. Here we go-the rules (please read the ticketing rules..) apply to everyone else but me. Sorry mate.
    I do not feel sorry for you.

  30. Is this price fixing? How can it be cheaper for an airline to fly additional segments? For example, it should not cost less to fly from Houston to San Francisco via Dallas layover, than it is to fly Dallas to San Francisco. But American has a monopoly on Dallas as a hub, so the charge locals more money. Now that is unethical and should be illegal.

  31. Did this in the ‘80’s. Flew out of the NYC/Westchester airports on projects. One that comes to mind was the Westchester to Milwaukee on United or Republic/Northwest. On occasion, rather than going to Milwaukee, I’d have a meeting in Detroit or Chicago. Yep, the Milwaukee ticket was cheaper in either case (United for Chicago and Detroit for NW).
    Which reminds me of a rare occurrence for me; coming close to punching out a gate agent. On said routing on NW through Detroit (actually trying to get to Milwaukee), the connecting agent at DTW blamed me for missing the connecting flight despite all my attempts to circumvent the delayed NW flight by getting on a non delayed scheduled wide open NW flight leaving 10 min later from Westchester to DTW. The agent in Westchester refused the transfer to the other flight (back in the 80’s this was not a fare class issue) stating my current flight would be right behind them (not so) and that they’d hold my connecting flight (not so). Thus began my boycott of NW. Too bad they took over Delta (it was no merger). DL service went downhill after that. Took a long time for Delta to recoup.

  32. @Paul,
    Your experience reads almost identical to mine – 35 years with United, reservations for the first 12 and then customer service airport after that and retired. I’ve seen my share of hidden cities but initially, years ago, the airlines did not track any of this. They knew it existed and people did it but it was not known or done by the masses.
    Two particular experiences stand out for me. Guy walked up to the check-in counter on a Saturday and needed to buy a ticket to Chicago. (I can’t give the airport he was leaving from but it was somewhere on the east coast). He had no bag, no MPLUS number, but said he had to go (maybe he had a hot date in Chicago) and get there as soon as possible. So happens I knew our weekend fare to MKE was $95 but the fare to Chicago was $200. Hmmm, no bags, one way, he really wants to go to Chicago.
    So I quoted the Chicago fare and said …. “too bad you’re not flying to MKE, our fare today is $95 and the routing would be xxx to Chicago to Milwaukee – you don’t mind changing planes in Chicago do you?”
    Needless to say, he read between the lines and said “Yeah, great idea, I think I’ll go to Milwaukee”. Nothing else needed to be said – obviously he got off in Chicago. Now I’m not proud of doing that flim-flam to my employer but……

    Next experience was just the opposite….. had a guy who walked up to check-in; the kiosk gave him both boarding passes xxx to Chicago and Chicago to Milwaukee. Now he comes up to me and says, I want to check my bag only to Chicago (because obviously the kiosk wouldn’t be able to do that). He really didn’t hide the fact that he was using a hidden city and was very arrogant about it as well. I basically pointed out the hidden city thing, United’s rules and that his bag will be checked to Milwaukee – that I could not short-check the bag to a different city than what was ticketed. He let loose on me like a crazy man, first with “just do it…. I do it all the time, etc”. When that didn’t work he pulled the race card and demanded a lead agent. She came over and summarily took his side (same race) all the while chiding me for lack of good customer service. Giving away the store is good customer service ?? So I said to her… “I’ve signed out of the computer, feel free to break United’s rules under YOUR agent sine”. After she did that, I went to a supervisor and told her what happened – how it turned into a racial thing, no support from my coworker, etc and that I would be documenting the record, who, what, where was advised. Needless to say this guy smugly won the game, walked away glaring at me. I didn’t let it rest though, I gave the lead agent a piece of my mind – how dare she side with him and accuse me of some kind of racial inequity and that basically she was being racist towards me, lying etc.
    So you win some and you lose some. After the first experience I vowed never to do that again, no matter how surreptitious as had I been caught, or the guy was some kind of United spy, I surely would have lost my job. The second experience just made me mad that there will always be coworkers who don’t hold to what is right and blatantly use other unrelated reasons to break rules.

  33. People who do this could be denying others who might fly that last segment a seat if the flight is fully booked. So to save yourself some money, you could be inconveniencing others.

  34. @Delta757Fan
    I don’t need to hassle anyone with a connection. I’m just going to say AI and looking at a PNR tell me everything I need to know, and no one who does my job has “hassled” anyone yet. Forget short checking a bag, there are obvious ways to tell. You’d be surprised the data in a PNR.

    And any no shows get queued, person isn’t even in front of an agent when that happens but they do get a notice from airline. When you do a job long enough you can see the proverbial fart in a windstorm.

    That said, I’m guessing you’re an anti-masker too.

  35. I’ve never had the need to do hidden city booking. But I understand the importance of following the rules lest you lose your frequent flyer status and miles.
    Two years ago I booked a mileage run: MC0-MSP-IAH-SLC-BOS-MCO. A few weeks before the run I learned I needed to attend an event in New York City. I wouldn’t be able to fly the final leg BOS-MCO. I didn’t want to take a seat away from someone who might need it so I called the airline. Just as I had suspected I was told if I cancelled the final leg the entire itinerary would very likely be cancelled. She suggested I simply not show for it.
    After speaking to the agent I went on line and booked a BOS-LGA (award) ticket so I could attend my event. I was a little concerned the reservation system wouldn’t allow it since I already held a reservation for BOS-MCO for the same day. Thankfully it all went off without a hitch. But I think it’s unfortunate that the rules wouldn’t allow me to cancel the final leg. Having been left with two choices – cancel the entire mileage run or be a no show for the final leg, I chose the latter.

  36. Airlines don’t price city pairs by distance. If they did, a connection would almost always be more. They price based upon what the market will bear and what the competition is doing. The hub and spoke model means there are usually imbalances in demand on certain routes, and weird connection pricing can fill those seats.

    I doubt that I would ever get flagged for this. I do buy odd routings for one reason or another, usually cost savings, but the number of flights I’ve no showed in nearly 2 million butt in seat miles is about 2 or 3. I have had to call and fix things when weather interfered, but I was up front about it. The worst case I can remember was flying SFO-LAX round trip on AA to visit family for the holidays, and then buying and LAX-YVR round trip on Alaska to take care of some business. The only ‘one airline’ option to do this trip at the time was United, and I just wasn’t flying them enough to want to do it.

    Everything went fine until my last night in Vancouver when snow was forecast for the next day. Sure enough, I got a call that night from Alaska saying all the flights to LAX the next day were being canceled and when would I like to rebook. That made the LAX-SFO segment on AA useless. The change fee was more than the ticket value. I ended up changing the Alaska flight to several weeks later and bought a round trip on Air Canada to get home to SFO and return on my next dates in Vancouver. That flight ended up being canceled and I think it took me 5 more days to actually get out. Probably the most consecutive days of snow I’d seen in all my visits. Took a white board to keep track of all the changes and segments!

  37. I don’t believe Northwest v Ginsburg allows an airline to bar a passenger from flying – it simply allows the airline to do what it wished with its FF program.

  38. With companies getting ever more into automated search algorithms to more effectively hunt for “the deplorables” in the customer ranks, expect more of this kind of thing to happen going forward.

    Their will probably still be ways to do hidden-city throwaway ticketing on this carrier too, but it may require the mouse to modify the game of cat-and-mouse by doing things like: segregating search methods for airfare; not booking via the airline’s own sites; using a different travel agent; not using the airline’s own frequent flyer program for such journeys; using a different bank card/form of payment when purchasing tickets with throwaway segments; using a fresh/clean device/browser and migrating IP adddresses for those throwaway segment ticket purchases; having any loaded contact information be different; playing games with the info that usually autopopulates the fields for “SecureFlights” processing that then are used to determine outcomes for PreCheck, haraSSSSment-flagging and so on.

  39. There*

    It doesn’t take a lot of genius to figure out all the PNR-tied info that is used by the US federal government to further expand the base of knowledge to use for the massive surveillance state apparatus spying on all of us travelers. Pay attention to what the surveillance state gets from the travel service providers, and there you have a good insight into what the airlines also do use as part of their “corporate security” fishing expeditions.

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