January 25, 2015

Thinking of flying down to Havana? Better think again.

JetlinerNebraskans who’ve heard the news about travel restrictions to Cuba being relaxed will be disappointed if they try to book a flight.

Gail Weinholzer, with AAA-Nebraska, says travel agents are getting a lot of calls from people who think Cuba will be the next hot vacation destination.

For now, it will only be easier for certain people to make the trip, and then, only if they meet very specific qualifications.

“You have to be visiting family, on official business of government, some educational opportunities, journalistic activity, but you have to fit under one of the 12 criteria,” Weinholzer says. “You can’t just go as a tourist and think you’ll hang out on the beach and have a good time. That’s absolutely not the case.”

One big change is, Americans will no longer be required to get a special license from the U.S. government to visit Cuba. Now, a passport will be sufficient. Also, you won’t be allowed to explore the island nation by yourself.

“American visitors are required to be accompanied by an employee or a tour guide from the travel agency they purchased their trip from,” Weinholzer says. “You cannot venture off on your own regardless of whether you’re there under one of the 12 criteria.”

The process of actually getting to Cuba isn’t getting any easier, either. There are no direct flights from Omaha to Havana, nor will there be in the immediate future. You’d have to first fly to another country like Mexico and then fly to Cuba from there.

“There are a few travel agencies that actually do sell travel packages to Cuba, but it’s a bit of an expensive trip, however,” Weinholzer says. “Just to give you an idea, an average trip costs about $500 to $600 per day.”

She doubts the situation will improve further anytime soon, noting that any changes beyond what President Obama has already announced will take an act of Congress.

Dropping gas prices are helping & hurting ethanol industry

gas-pump-111Gasoline prices are still falling across Nebraska and while it’s great news for motorists, those involved in ethanol production are seeing their profit margins shaved to remain competitive.

Nebraska Ethanol Board administrator Todd Sneller says it’s a good news-bad news scenario.

“We’ve seen a decline in the margins at ethanol plants but December was an unusual month given the lower gasoline prices,” Sneller says. “It was unusual in that there was a significant increase in demand worldwide for ethanol, with a lot of product going to Brazil and to Europe and some to China.”

Sneller says while gas prices are falling, demand for an ethanol by-product is on the rise.

“The decision by the Chinese government to again open the doors for distiller’s feed imports into China has created a huge demand for distiller’s feeds coming out of the ethanol plants,” Sneller says, “Of course, the only way to get distiller’s feeds is to make ethanol.”

Nebraska is the nation’s #2 producer of corn-based ethanol, behind only Iowa.

Sneller says many ethanol plants experienced good economic conditions in early 2014. Because of that, he says some plant operators have managed to deal with the recent low gasoline and oil prices.

Crude oil prices have fallen to $50 a barrel in many markets, half what it cost a year ago. AAA-Nebraska reports the statewide average price for gasoline is $2.01 per gallon.

By Jerry Oster, WNAX, Yankton


Cheap gas prices are treat for drivers, fright for Wall Street

gas-pump-111While gasoline is selling below $2 a gallon in some Nebraska cities, the great news for motorists is cause for alarm for investors.

Markets around the globe are showing signs of weakness as crude oil dropped to $50 a barrel, half what it was a year ago.

Creighton University economist Ernie Goss says stock markets in Europe and Asia are reeling and Wall Street is reacting.

“Investors are saying, well, sooner or later, that economic slowdown is going to hit the U.S., so that’s being reflected in the markets with economic pullbacks,” Goss says. “We’re seeing that in all the markets, whether it’s the Dow, whether it’s the S&P or the NASDAQ.”

Some fear Russia’s petroleum-heavy economy is nearing a critical low, while Goss says the U.S. economy has seen a big shift over the past decade.

“We’ve gone from an economy, the U.S. economy, of exports of about 4% of GDP, gross domestic product, to about 16%,” Goss says. “So, if we have pullbacks in Russia, that means they’re going to be buying less of our goods. We’re already seeing that in Europe as they buy less of our goods and certainly Asia is another place where we’re seeing a real pullback in economic growth and that’s going to mean they’re buying less of our goods.”

Nebraska is the nation’s #2 ethanol producer behind only Iowa and Goss says the steady drop in gas prices will force ethanol to respond.

“Overall, ethanol will be hurt by this,” Goss says. “Of course, ethanol competes with gasoline and is a blend in gasoline. With corn prices up a bit over the last couple of months, this is going to put a squeeze on the profit margins of ethanol producers.”

AAA-Nebraska reports gas prices in Nebraska are averaging $2.08 a gallon, the lowest in about five years.


Group argues two-lane Highway 275 hinders economic growth

4 lanes 4 nebraskaA coalition has formed in northeast Nebraska, pushing for the expansion of Highway 275.

4 Lanes 4 Nebraska Executive Director Josh Moening says the Norfolk area keeps growing, despite Highway 275 being a two-lane road between Norfolk and Fremont.

“This is an area that contributes so much to our state, economically and socially, but for so long we’ve been really isolated in terms of infrastructure with the 1940s highway,” Moening tells Nebraska Radio Network affiliate WJAG

Moening argues the area needs a four-lane highway connecting it with Interstate 80 in Omaha to expand its manufacturing, business, and agricultural sectors.

Highway 275 is two lanes for 45 miles between Norfolk and Fremont.

Moening says the coalition says it is time to make the case that expansion of Highway 275 is needed to continue the region’s progress.

“You have a mix of some very productive industry here that is forced yet to move products and commerce on a two-lane highway,” according to Moening.

Business and industry leaders from Norfolk, Pilger, West Point, Scribner, and Snyder make up 4 Lanes 4 Nebraska’s board of directors.

Highway 275 was constructed as a two-lane highway in 1939.The state in 1988 enacted a transportation policy calling for every major Nebraska community to be connected to the interstate system via a four-lane highway.

Paul Hughes, WJAG, contributed to this report.

Review TSA guidelines before flying this holiday season

Transportation Security Administration agents screen about 1.8 million passengers every day at airports across the country. Air travel will increase this week as people head home for the holidays and TSA Federal Security Director for Nebraska Paul Ross suggests those flying take time to review list of items of what is prohibited to take on a plane. He says every month in Nebraska they collect about 300 pounds of prohibited items.

Ross says most of the items collected from passengers are knives but they have also found cattle prods, a cane sword, hay bale hooks and even a pair of spiked shoes. He says so far this year agents uncovered 13 firearms compared to seven in 2013. He says passengers can either surrender those items or they will be taken by agents. Those items are turned over to the State Surplus Agency. Those wanting to retain those items can give them to a family member not flying or travelers can also mail them home from the airport. Many of these items, including firearms, are allowed in checked baggage if they meet certain requirements.

For those flying this holiday season Ross has several tips. He says don’t wrap gifts. If they have to conduct a search all packages will be opened. Liquid items more than 3.4 ounces are prohibited as carry-on and that includes wine or other alcohol, syrup, jelly and jam.

Ross says airports are very busy places this time of year so allow enough time to make it through security checkpoints. They recommend 90 minutes before flight time.