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Latest airline perk: Safe distance from the masses

NEW YORK (AP) — Some of the most cherished new international first-class perks have nothing to do with meals, drinks or seats. Global airlines are increasingly rewarding wealthy fliers with physical distance between them and everyone else.

Passengers willing to pay thousands more can check-in at secluded facilities, pass swiftly through security and be driven in luxury cars directly to planes.

The front of the plane has always been plusher than the back. But in recent years airlines have put a greater focus on catering to the most affluent fliers. At big carriers like American Airlines, about 70 per cent of revenue comes from the top 20 per cent of its customers.

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Smartphone cameras step closer to high-end power

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Expect sharper, clearer selfies this year.

Samsung Electronics Co. has beefed up the camera in its Galaxy S5 smartphone due for April release and added smarter camera software, following Sony and Nokia in their upgrades of handset cameras. The tweaks, highlighted at the global wireless show in Barcelona that wraps up Thursday, mean smartphone photos will be closer in quality to images captured by digital single-lens reflex cameras.

Instead of touting their smartphones as thinner, lighter or bigger screened, many companies were boasting how their latest mobile gadgets can record ultra-high definition videos, take big-pixel pictures without a second of delay and capture clearer images even at a low-light settings and when a subject is moving.

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New food labels aim to make healthy shopping easy

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ice cream lovers beware: The government knows you're unlikely to stop after half a cup.

New nutrition labels proposed Thursday for many popular foods, including ice cream, aim to more accurately reflect what people actually eat. And the proposal would make calorie counts on labels more prominent, too, reflecting that nutritionists now focus more on calories than fat. For the first time, labels also would be required to list any sugars that are added by manufacturers.

The idea behind the change, the first overhaul of the labels in two decades, is that people should understand how many calories are in what they already are eating.

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Noting tech needs, mining companies seek graphite

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Tear apart an electric car's rechargeable battery and you'll find a mineral normally associated with No. 2 pencils — graphite.

Experts say the promise of expanded uses for "pencil lead" in lithium-ion batteries — used in cars, cellphones and tablet computers — as well as a decrease in supply from China has helped touch off the largest wave of mining projects in decades.

The mineral's products comprise a $13 billion industry.

The U.S. imports all of its natural graphite, but mining companies are searching locations from Alaska to Alabama, optimistic about future demand. China, meanwhile, appears to have eased its grip on world production, creating an opening that hasn't existed since the mid-'90s, mining companies say.

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Yellen: Fed monitoring recent weaker economic data

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said Thursday that recent economic data points to weaker-than-expected gains in consumer spending and job growth and the Fed will be watching to see whether the slowdown proves only a blip caused by severe winter weather.

In her remarks to the Senate Banking Committee, Yellen repeated the Fed's previous assurances that its pullback in its bond purchases is not on a preset course and could be modified if there was a significant change in the Fed's outlook.

The Fed is gradually reducing its monthly bond purchases, which have been intended to keep long-term loan rates low to encourage spending and growth.

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Applications for US jobless benefits rise to 348K

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people applying for U.S. unemployment benefits rose last week to a seasonally adjusted 348,000, though the broader trend in applications remained stable. But the four-week average was unchanged at 338,250, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Applications are a rough proxy for layoffs. The average is not far above pre-recession levels, a sign companies are laying off few workers.

Economists said that winter storms two weeks ago may have caused some people to delay submitting their applications until last week, temporarily boosting the figures.

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Sears 4Q loss narrows as it lowers expenses

NEW YORK (AP) — Sears Holdings Corp. reported a hefty loss in the fourth quarter, as the beleaguered retailer continues to struggle to bring shoppers into its stores. But the operator of Kmart and Sears stores narrowed its loss versus a year ago.

Company Chairman, CEO and hedge fund billionaire Eddie Lampert called it a "tough to terrible" holiday season, underscoring his struggle to turn around the company.

Sears has been cutting costs, reducing inventory and selling assets to return to profits. It plans to spin off its Lands' End clothing business as a separate company.

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Best Buy returns to profit in 4th quarter

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Best Buy returned to a profit in the fourth quarter and topped Wall Street expectations as it cut costs to offset declining sales.

The specialty electronics retailer says it gained market share during the quarter.

Best Buy has been dealing with increased competition from online stores, notably Amazon.com, and discounters like Wal-Mart. Under CEO Hubert Joly, the company has tried to turn around results, revamping merchandise, training employees and cutting costs. But that hasn't been enough to reverse a sales decline.

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Freddie Mac posts $8.6B profit in 4Q

WASHINGTON (AP) — Mortgage giant Freddie Mac posted net income of $8.6 billion for its fourth quarter, with a boost from improved home prices, which reduced the amounts the company had to set aside to cover losses on mortgages.

However, Freddie said Thursday that its recent strong level of earnings is "not sustainable over the long term" because the rise in home prices has begun to slow and the use of its tax benefits was an unusual event. Freddie also gained billions of dollars last year from a number of settlements with major banks over soured mortgage securities it bought from them before the crisis.

The government rescued Freddie and larger sibling Fannie Mae at the height of the financial crisis with taxpayer aid totalling $187 billion.

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Gap's 4th-quarter profit down 12.5 per cent

NEW YORK (AP) — Gap Inc. reported a 12.5 per cent drop in fourth-quarter profit on a 3 per cent decline in revenue as the clothing retailer was forced to discount heavily over the holiday shopping season to entice customers.

The clothing chain, which operates Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic and Athleta, also issued a profit outlook for the full year that's below analysts' expectations.

The results issued Thursday come after Gap, like many retailers, finished a brutal holiday season marked by heavy discounting to help attract shoppers who've been cautious about spending in a still sluggish economy.

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By The Associated Press=

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 74.24, or 0.5, per cent, to close at 16,272.65. The S&P 500 rose 9.13 points, or 0.5 per cent, to 1,854.29. The Nasdaq composite climbed 26.87 points, or 0.6 per cent, to 4,318.93.

Benchmark U.S. crude for April delivery slipped 19 cents, or 0.2 per cent, to close at $102.40 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Natural gas futures fell 3 cents to $4.51 per 1,000 cubic feet. Wholesale gasoline lost 4 cents at $2.76 per gallon. Heating oil shed 4 cents to $3.09 per gallon. Brent crude, which is used to set prices for international varieties of crude, was down 67 cents to $108.85 on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

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