Is First Class Worth It? Here’s How To Decide

Is First Class Worth It? Here’s How To Decide

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Over the past decade we’ve seen airlines in the United States do a better job of monetizing first class. Back in the day first class would be outrageously expensive. Most seats wouldn’t be sold, but rather would go to people upgrading. Nowadays the percentage of first class seats outright paid for continues to increase, as airlines often decrease the price difference between economy and first class.

In this post I wanted to share my take on when first class is worth it — how much extra am I willing to pay for a first class seat, and how do I decide whether to try to upgrade or pay outright?

What are the benefits of flying first class?

First it’s probably worth sharing a bit of background, so we’re all on the same page. This post is dedicated to your run of the mill domestic first class experience within the United States — we’re not talking about Emirates’ A380 first class with shower suites.

While there’s still significant variance, in general you can expect that a domestic first class ticket includes the following:

  • A seat that is significantly wider and has more legroom — you can expect a wider seat with more shoulder space, and several extra inches of seat pitch, so you can stretch out more easily
  • Free alcohol onboard, and depending on the length of the flight, something to eat
  • Priority check-in, priority security, priority boarding, and priority deplaning
  • Free checked bags
  • More miles or points toward elite qualification, should you be going for airline status
  • Generally speaking domestic first class tickets don’t include lounge access — there are exceptions, like paid first class tickets on Alaska, or select premium routes on American
Don’t get too excited about domestic first class food

One thing to be on the lookout for is that sometimes airlines fly wide body aircraft with fully flat beds on domestic routes, so it could be worth going out of your way (or paying a premium) for these flights. See my post about the best domestic first class flights.

After all, a fully flat bed with direct aisle access…

American’s 777 business class

…looks significantly better than your standard domestic first class seat.

American’s 737 first class

How much do I value first class?

Personally I conservatively value being in first class over economy at $50 per hour (an hour generally equates to roughly 500 flown miles, if you want to look at it based on distance). There are obviously a lot of variables, but for me that seems like a fair number, and a good starting point for crunching numbers.

I derive value from first class for two simple reasons — the ability to be productive and comfortable. With high speed Wi-Fi increasingly becoming standard on flights, I can be every bit as productive in the air as on the ground. And while domestic first class is hardly anything to get excited about, it is a comfortable place from which to work, and can double as an office.

The extra space goes a long way in first class

Could I work in economy if I had to? Of course. However, it’s quite uncomfortable, and between the lack of privacy (even with a privacy screen someone is usually staring at my screen), the general lack of shoulder space (I have to angle my arms uncomfortably to make it work), and someone potentially reclining significantly into my space, it’s just not a pleasant experience. I’m getting old(er). Bones that I didn’t know existed have started to hurt, and if I can avoid this experience at a reasonable cost, then I do.

It’s harder to get work done in these seats

For me domestic first class is purely about the space. Some might appreciate the food or drinks, but the food is rarely good, and I’m not really looking to get drunk “just because” (well, unless I’m flying international first class on a top airline, in which case that’s a good enough occasion for me).

How do I decide whether to pay for first class?

American Airlines is the airline I fly most (given that I live in Miami), and I have Executive Platinum status in the AAdvantage program. In theory that entitles me to unlimited domestic upgrades, but that’s subject to availability. Sometimes those upgrades clear easily, while other times they don’t — increasingly I’m finding they don’t, as American is allegedly selling 80% of domestic first class seats.

How do I go about deciding whether to pay for first class, or chance it with an upgrade?

First of all, I analyze the odds of my upgrade clearing:

  • How many first class seats are left for sale at the time of booking? If first class is mostly booked way in advance, it’s unlikely that many upgrades will clear, and on top of that, not all planes have the same ratio of first class seats to economy class seats
  • How competitive are upgrades in a market? Generally a Dallas to Los Angeles upgrade will be more competitive than an Austin to Tampa upgrade
  • How many extra legroom economy and exit row seats are occupied at the time of booking? This is generally a good indication of how many other elites are on the flight, since they can generally assign these seats in advance
  • Is there a way to confirm an upgrade in advance, like with a systemwide upgrade, a Business Extra upgrade voucher, etc.?

Then I also often apply a discount to the fare difference. For example, say I’m looking at an American Airlines ticket, and the fare difference between economy and first class is $200:

  • As an Executive Platinum member I earn 11x AAdvantage miles per dollar spent, and I value those miles at 1.5 cents each; to me that’s an incremental 16.5% return on spending
  • If I pay with my Amex Platinum I earn 5x Membership Rewards points per dollar spent, and I value those at 1.7 cents each; to me that’s an incremental 8.5% return on spending

Between those two factors, I’m getting a 25% return on my spending. That lowers my real “out of pocket” from $200 to $150.

Beyond those considerations, I make decisions on a case-by-case basis. In other words, if I value first class at $50 extra per hour, and if I think I have a 50% chance of an upgrade clearing, I might be willing to pay an extra $25 per hour of flying to outright pay for first class.

I consider several factors when deciding whether to pay for first class

Some examples of deciding between fares

In general I find that Delta does the best job with its first class pricing, at least based on my willingness to pay. With Delta more often than not I find that first class pricing is right at the breakeven point based on my math.

For example, I have SkyMiles Silver Medallion status with Delta, so upgrades rarely clear. Take a Miami to Boston flight on Delta for example, where (non-basic) economy class costs $127, and first class costs $327.

Comparing Delta Air Lines fare options

Would I pay an extra $200 to essentially sit in a first class seat for well over three hours? Probably, especially when you consider that I really only view this as costing ~$170, after factoring in the value of the incremental miles I’d be earning. That’s right around $50 per hour, and as a Silver Medallion it can even be hard to snag a good Comfort+ seat without paying extra.

For a similar yet slightly different example, let’s take a Tampa to Chicago flight on American, where (non-basic) economy costs $169, and first class costs $418.

Comparing American Airlines fare options

Would I pay an extra $249 to essentially sit in a first class seat for roughly three hours? Keep in mind that I apply a 25% discount to that difference (to account for the 11x AAdvantage miles and 5x Membership Rewards points I’d earn), so that really only costs me an extra ~$187.

On the surface the math isn’t that different than the Delta example above — the flight is slightly shorter and the upgrade is slightly more expensive. The major consideration here is that I actually have good odds of clearing an upgrade on American given my higher status, unlike on Delta. So in this case I’d probably pay for economy and hope for the best.

For a last example, let’s take a look at a Miami to Houston to Puerto Vallarta itinerary on United, where (non-basic) economy costs $268, and first class costs $498.

Comparing United Airlines fare options

Would I pay an extra $230 to essentially sit in a first class seat for roughly six hours? I’d first apply a discount to account for the miles I’d earn, so it’s really costing me under $200. Is that worth it for roughly six hours in first class? Absolutely, this one is a no-brainer.

At least that’s how I approach these situations based on my specific circumstances — for others, I think it’s worth considering whether you have status more generally, and what value that gets you. In some cases elite status may already get you free checked bags, extra legroom economy seating, priority boarding, etc., in which case that reduces the incremental value of first class.

Conversely, if you don’t have status and know you’re going to be checking two bags, you can subtract the cost of that from the price difference. You could also factor in if you’d otherwise pay for extra legroom economy seats, priority boarding, etc.

Bottom line

Everyone values first class differently, so there’s no consistent formula for calculating how much of a premium it’s worth paying, especially given how many variables there are.

Personally I value first class at ~$50 per hour over economy, and that’s largely because I can work productively in first class, while it’s a struggle in economy. That doesn’t even account for such things as generally being comfortable, getting a meal and free drinks, earning bonus elite qualifying miles, etc.

When deciding what to book, I also factor in my upgrade chances, as well as the miles I’m earning for the difference in fare, since I view that as a discount.

Under what circumstances do you consider paying for first class?

Conversations (44)
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  1. Timo Gold

    Very surprisingly last week I looked at my itinerary on the AA app and saw a banner to upgrade my flight to LAX on Wednesday before Thanksgiving for just $119 to first. They are running a 787 on this route so I immediately paid it. I'm lowly Gold so was shocked but realized it was a one chance opportunity. First is only half sold but I'll never get an upgrade as Gold until several tens of thousands Exec Plats die, lol!

  2. Andy Diamond

    I'm very tall (6'7", with long legs and a rather short upper body). My legs therefore don't fit into regular economy class seats in virtually any airline (34" seat pitch would be possible, but who has that regular economy?). So for me the calculus is slightly differently, I have to compare first/business/premium eco with extra legroom seats in Economy. They usually also come at a price, and sometimes even they offer less than 34".

    As...

    I'm very tall (6'7", with long legs and a rather short upper body). My legs therefore don't fit into regular economy class seats in virtually any airline (34" seat pitch would be possible, but who has that regular economy?). So for me the calculus is slightly differently, I have to compare first/business/premium eco with extra legroom seats in Economy. They usually also come at a price, and sometimes even they offer less than 34".

    As a consequence, the price gap usually becomes smaller, since my legspace seat increases the Eco fare, in some cases quite substantially (e.g. transatlantic legspace seats usually come at around USD 150 one way unless you have a status at that specific airline, not alliance!; that's USD 300 round trip). This brings the Eco fare often into the area of premium eco or business class with one of the more economic offers (e.g. TP). I would then definitely give preference to a J flight on TP, than a Y flight with a leg space seat on LX ...

  3. Mike C Diamond

    In Australia the calculus is different (it's business not first here, at least one checked bag is usually included with all fares, lounge access is included with any J ticket or with gold or higher status, there are no free upgrades), but there is still a way to number-crunch to evaluate whether to pay for J or register for a points upgrade. For the most part, though, I don't do it. I consider whether I...

    In Australia the calculus is different (it's business not first here, at least one checked bag is usually included with all fares, lounge access is included with any J ticket or with gold or higher status, there are no free upgrades), but there is still a way to number-crunch to evaluate whether to pay for J or register for a points upgrade. For the most part, though, I don't do it. I consider whether I want the amenity that J offers and whether I am prepared to forego it on any given flight and then I apply a 'you've got to be joking' filter to the J fare on offer. I don't usually use the value of points and status credits in a cost calculation but instead treat them as a serendipitous extra. Rational? Perhaps not!

  4. Tim Guest

    Where are you getting those prices?! I fly almost every week and rarely pay under $600 round trip nowadays for economy. First class is many times over $1500.

  5. Chad Guest

    Having earned AA Plat Pro through a challenge, a status I will never achieve again, and gotten several F upgrades, I wouldn't pay more than $100 for domestic F, and it would have to be a pretty long flight to even get me to pay that much. It's just not that great. I'm always happy to get my free upgrade but I certainly don't need it.

  6. AndyPBNYC New Member

    I do frequent PBI-LGA round trips. Delta's first class prices are generally 3 to 4 times the price of economy on this route.. I generally travel with a staff member who sits in economy, so I'm well aware of the difference. This comes out to well more than an extra $50/hr. I'm not as young as I used to be, so I prefer sitting at the front of the plane. Delta is the only carrier...

    I do frequent PBI-LGA round trips. Delta's first class prices are generally 3 to 4 times the price of economy on this route.. I generally travel with a staff member who sits in economy, so I'm well aware of the difference. This comes out to well more than an extra $50/hr. I'm not as young as I used to be, so I prefer sitting at the front of the plane. Delta is the only carrier on this particular route that offers first class, so I'm sort of a captive. UA flies PBI-EWR, but this adds an extra 40 minutes travel time to and from my home in NYC. FYI, the UA planes are always much cleaner than DL's, primarily because DL does not allow enough time for the planes to be properly cleaned before they ar scheduled to return to the air.

  7. Carrie Member

    It is curious that Americans refer to their premium domestic class as 'First' whereas most other jurisdictions use the term 'business' for the same or similar product. Does any of the OMAAT community know the origins of the naming distinction?

    1. BigRedBK New Member

      They basically never changed it. Originally airlines had just one class, then a first class was invented.

      In the late 1970s, on widebodies, airlines started seating full-fare economy passengers in an in-between class which eventually became a bookable business class.

      None of the existing US legacy carriers went through a renaming exercise to adjust to the fact that their narrowbody domestic fleet's first class was now close to their widebody business class.

    2. Carrie Member

      Thank you for taking the time to explain the historical origins of the first class moniker.

  8. Randy Gold

    I don't think F is worth it if you can get an exit row aisle. AA redid its narrow bodies and reduced the pitch in F. A reclined F seat now interfers with using your tray table and getting out of your seat.

    The food in domestic F is not very good.

    Before when F on AA gave you double EQM - it was maybe worth it if the cost of F was less than twice coach. But now it comes down to spend - for air, CC, and portal purchases and hotels.

    1. Randy Gold

      Plus if you are getting upgrade - chances are you will get a window F seat - but I would prefer exit aisle.

  9. Lee Guest

    Yes. Look at all of the benefits that domestic first class receives. Who needs tier status?

  10. relidtm Member

    i typically follow this rule with delta but sometimes they are truly crazy right now im looking nonstop to NYC they want 300$ for one leg of the trip pp. I cant justify that from e+

  11. [email protected] Guest

    You used to be able to get first for that kind of range, and we would pay it. But lately they're asking more like $200 per hour. Totally not worth it.

  12. Annie Bone Guest

    I fly often between SFO and New York. I just went to make a reservation for the end of march. I see that the wide bodied planes arre no longer being used on those flights by either united or delta. What’s going on?

    1. BigRedBK New Member

      They're likely prioritizing the widebodies for transatlantic flights. They both have a record-setting schedule there next year.

  13. Alex Guest

    Domestic first class is not worth the upgrade fees. You’re in the same aircraft and still flying for X number of hours. It is more comfortable, but it doesn’t include much beyond free booze or a light meal worth $10. Save your money for the hotel; I find that a nice room offers far more value than a nice seat on the plane for a few hours. Meanwhile, I WILL pay more not to fly Spirit or Allegiant. They were ranked and literally are the worst carriers in the world.

    1. NFSF Gold

      "You’re in the same aircraft and still flying for X number of hours"

      This is true of every single flight, domestic or international.

    2. Brian Gasser Guest

      I have the opposite point of view. I would rather spend more for F, and downgrade the hotel. Flying JFK-LAX in J is a much better experience than in Y. It makes my trip more enjoyable.

  14. JinxedK Guest

    I'm pretty flexible when it comes to carrier, so it all comes down to what I need for that specific flight.
    Recently I had a choice between a $120 economy airfare + $80 in checked baggage fees on one carrier, or $220 first class + 2 free bags on another carrier. I took the latter.
    If I didn't need checked bags, I would have taken the former.

  15. Bill Guest

    Interesting how you are using the term “first class” for what is essentially business class. This has been a fantastic slight-of-hand by the airlines over the last 20 years. They have effectively removed space-wasting first class altogether and replaced it with smaller, denser business class seats. Now that the first phase is complete, we are starting to see business class ticket prices soar through the roof. Many are now the same price that first class...

    Interesting how you are using the term “first class” for what is essentially business class. This has been a fantastic slight-of-hand by the airlines over the last 20 years. They have effectively removed space-wasting first class altogether and replaced it with smaller, denser business class seats. Now that the first phase is complete, we are starting to see business class ticket prices soar through the roof. Many are now the same price that first class used to be with fewer of the perks & much less space. You’ve drank the coolaid…..

    1. rr22 Guest

      @Bill: It's *not* interesting that he's calling it first class. It is called (domestic) first class by the airlines and everyone else. That's just what it's called.

    2. TravelinWilly Diamond

      This comment betrays your ignorance of US domestic first class seating specs, along with historical pricing patterns for such seats

      Or are you confusing international first with domestic fort seating and sizing? One can’t be sure because your post is babbly and vague.

      Try reading and flying a bit before commenting.

    3. Tim Guest

      I was just saying that same thing! I used to fly anywhere around the world in first class for around $3000 lying flat. US to Europe or US to Asia. I just got back from a flight to Spain and paid $3000 for the Premium Economy seat. First class lie flat was $12,000!!!

  16. Jimmy’s Travel Report Diamond

    Ben, I use a very similar formula and analysis as to whether I would pay for first class or not. My $ rate per hour is higher; most likely because I’m older and value my comfort more than when I was younger. I couple other factors include

    1. Am I traveling with someone else? If it’s my wife I’d prefer to treat her, and have a nice ride together. If they’re an important client I’ll...

    Ben, I use a very similar formula and analysis as to whether I would pay for first class or not. My $ rate per hour is higher; most likely because I’m older and value my comfort more than when I was younger. I couple other factors include

    1. Am I traveling with someone else? If it’s my wife I’d prefer to treat her, and have a nice ride together. If they’re an important client I’ll press management to pay for the better seat. On the other hand if I’m traveling with my wife and one daughter, three together on a premium economy bench is comfortable and fine, as I don’t mind being in close proximity to family. If I’m by myself, then I’ll pay more for a transcon flight with a lie flat seat.

    2. Ground experience. If the first class flight gives me a considerably better ground experience, like American’s first class dining experience or lounge, then I’ll spend more everything else being equal.

    3. If the flight is empty, and I have a reasonable expectation that I’ll have an empty coach seat next to me (especially a premium economy seat) then a 3-4 hour flight in coach is fine.

  17. Cbchicago Guest

    Sad state of OMAAT to be without any United comments or experiences. UA Flyers get club access on FC EWR-LAX/SFO. The plus point waitlist confirmed or priority is another great point. I think you should say when is it a good idea to fly economy. What about premium economy when Business is not available. Upgrading is further enhanced if you purchase premium. I know lots of people in South Florida that do not fly AA. Me for one.

    1. Brett Guest

      Is this right? Last I checked UA didn’t offer lounge access on transcon.

  18. Richard_ New Member

    I'm a leisure flier and always pick first class (domestic) and business (international) unless the price is absurd. If the price is absurd, I'll pick dates for which the prices is not absurd.

  19. pstm91 Diamond

    Ben, I'm always curious as to why you view your points return on purchases as lowering your "out of pocket" costs. Yes, you are getting something extra in return for your spending, but you are still very much out the $$ it took to make that purchase. Lowering the actual "out of pocket" number would take an actual discount or some sort of refund, like an Amex offer reimbursement. On another note, there are tons...

    Ben, I'm always curious as to why you view your points return on purchases as lowering your "out of pocket" costs. Yes, you are getting something extra in return for your spending, but you are still very much out the $$ it took to make that purchase. Lowering the actual "out of pocket" number would take an actual discount or some sort of refund, like an Amex offer reimbursement. On another note, there are tons of intangibles for me to make this decision rather than basing it off of a ratio, such as your $50/hour. I had to fly last minute LAX-JFK last week and AA priced out economy around $250, F was over $1,000. I saw on the seat map that economy was only about 2/3 full, so I did that and sure enough I had an empty middle seat next to me. I was perfectly comfortable for that ~5 hour flight and much more happy that it didn't cost an arm and a leg.

    1. NFSF Gold

      It's faulty math, like someone buying something for 50% that they wouldn't have bought otherwise.

  20. Creditcrunch Diamond

    I believe there was never any plans to retire the A380, in fact in April rumours were circulating that BA plans to retrofit them with the new First and Business class seats, it was supposedly to begin in 2023 but this might be pushed. The only route that BA try to guarantee the new club suite is on the LHR-JFK.

    1. glenn t Diamond

      Now all they need to do is retire all those FAs who think THEY should be treated like royalty!

  21. Robert Fahr Guest

    Reading between the lines, it seems like Ben always can justify flying First (not that there is anything wrong with it).

  22. Nikojas Guest

    Interesting and makes sense for domestic. Bur what's the math for long haul business class? At $50 an hour you'd never fly business based on that math, when business is 3-4 times more than economy.

    1. NFSF Gold

      For me, discomfort doesn't scale linearly with time, so the $/hour math doesn't work. Wanting to sleep on the flight so you're reasonably rested when you arrival also influences whether to buy J or not.

  23. Dave Solomon Guest

    It really depends on you situation. When I was young, flying coach was fine, I was just glad to travel. Now that I am old, flying only for pleasure and with back problems, coach is uncomfortable. When I fly anything over an hour or so, it is first class for domestic. For international, premium select (on Delta) is really comfortable for me, and affordable, so that is what I fly.

    I can be uncomfortable...

    It really depends on you situation. When I was young, flying coach was fine, I was just glad to travel. Now that I am old, flying only for pleasure and with back problems, coach is uncomfortable. When I fly anything over an hour or so, it is first class for domestic. For international, premium select (on Delta) is really comfortable for me, and affordable, so that is what I fly.

    I can be uncomfortable at home for free. Why pay to travel and spend the time on a plane in in agony. Thanks to lot of points from using a Delta AMX for as many of my bills as possible, I can swing it on a comfortable but not extravagant retirement mixing points and miles.

    1. Hoosier in Paradise New Member

      Ditto. I'm comfortably retired. I want the bulkhead aisle in First with easy access to the restroom. I always buy Domestic First on DL and find it competitively priced ahead of AA or UA for my routes. Thanks for the quantitative analysis, Ben.

  24. MildMidwesterner Gold

    At $50 per 500 mile segment you're basically saying that international business class is almost never worth it. The typical East Coast to Europe flight is roughly 4,000 miles, so you're looking at a $400 premium for business class over economy. I'd love to see a route where business is only $400 more than an economy ticket!

    1. Jim Lovejoy Guest

      International Premium Economy is closer to domestic First Class than is International Business.
      So you'd need to find a route where Premium Economy is only $800 round trip more than economy.
      For International Business he'd probably use different criteria.

  25. Mantis Guest

    Domestic: not worth it. International on cash: Not worth it. International on points: sure, why not.

  26. Andrew Guest

    I only do domestic if it's lie flat or the price is close and I need to check bags. International... always!

    1. 305 Guest

      Agree that lie-flat domestic is great, but I find it a complete waste of money, at least on AA.

      With PE now on all wide bodies, I’ll gladly take a coach-priced, MCE marked, PE seat over paying extra for a lie-flat. The domestic soft product is meh, so getting what’s basically a domestic first seat for the price of coach is worth it to me. I fly MIA-other hubs often and will work my schedule around the wide body frequencies for this “perk”

  27. Zach Guest

    Ben - Don’t forget about the AA - Hyatt reciprocal earnings…you earn 1 Hyatt point per dollar spent on AA. You value Hyatt points at ~1.5 cents, so that increases your return on spending to 26.5%.

  28. George Romey Guest

    My criteria on whether to buy first class:
    1. Price
    2. Length of flight
    3. A/C type (for example being able to select a window in row 11 on an A321ceo). I've never NOT been able to pick a MCE seat
    4. Meal-although that's a distant 4th considering domestic first food.

    The problem I have with the upgrade offers is that spending doesn't earn LPs. I will from time to time...

    My criteria on whether to buy first class:
    1. Price
    2. Length of flight
    3. A/C type (for example being able to select a window in row 11 on an A321ceo). I've never NOT been able to pick a MCE seat
    4. Meal-although that's a distant 4th considering domestic first food.

    The problem I have with the upgrade offers is that spending doesn't earn LPs. I will from time to time still take the upgrade offer but more than often I'll look for a good first fare or just simply play the upgrade lottery.

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Dave Solomon Guest

It really depends on you situation. When I was young, flying coach was fine, I was just glad to travel. Now that I am old, flying only for pleasure and with back problems, coach is uncomfortable. When I fly anything over an hour or so, it is first class for domestic. For international, premium select (on Delta) is really comfortable for me, and affordable, so that is what I fly. I can be uncomfortable at home for free. Why pay to travel and spend the time on a plane in in agony. Thanks to lot of points from using a Delta AMX for as many of my bills as possible, I can swing it on a comfortable but not extravagant retirement mixing points and miles.

5
Jimmy’s Travel Report Diamond

Ben, I use a very similar formula and analysis as to whether I would pay for first class or not. My $ rate per hour is higher; most likely because I’m older and value my comfort more than when I was younger. I couple other factors include 1. Am I traveling with someone else? If it’s my wife I’d prefer to treat her, and have a nice ride together. If they’re an important client I’ll press management to pay for the better seat. On the other hand if I’m traveling with my wife and one daughter, three together on a premium economy bench is comfortable and fine, as I don’t mind being in close proximity to family. If I’m by myself, then I’ll pay more for a transcon flight with a lie flat seat. 2. Ground experience. If the first class flight gives me a considerably better ground experience, like American’s first class dining experience or lounge, then I’ll spend more everything else being equal. 3. If the flight is empty, and I have a reasonable expectation that I’ll have an empty coach seat next to me (especially a premium economy seat) then a 3-4 hour flight in coach is fine.

4
TravelinWilly Diamond

This comment betrays your ignorance of US domestic first class seating specs, along with historical pricing patterns for such seats Or are you confusing international first with domestic fort seating and sizing? One can’t be sure because your post is babbly and vague. Try reading and flying a bit before commenting.

3
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