Hyung Jun Lee

Air travel picks up but recovery will take years

By Hyung Jun Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – Air travel plummeted during the pandemic. Experts say that travel trends will change as more people get vaccinated and begin traveling again.

Over 1 million passengers have traveled daily since mid-March, according to Transportation Security Administration checkpoint numbers. Mother’s Day weekend saw the largest number of travelers since early March 2020. The total of passengers nationwide so far this year moving through TSA checkpoints is just over 40% of all traffic last year. 

Virginia air travel is already picking up, according to several airports throughout the state. Robert Yingling, spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said numbers are low compared to 2019 but travel is increasing. He speaks on behalf of both the Washington Dulles International and Ronald Reagan National airports.

“Travel volumes at Reagan National and Dulles are still well below where they were at this time in 2019,” Yingling said. “We have seen gradual recovery since the pandemic.”

Troy Bell, the director of marketing and air service development at Richmond International Airport, said that air travel has increased as more people get COVID-19 vaccines and with the warming weather.

“March comes around and then all of a sudden we see about a 60% increase,” Bell said. “We’ve seen a true increase and we think this one’s going to stick.”

Air travel has increased daily at the Norfolk International Airport since January, according to Charles Braden, the director of market development.

“We had a big surge around the holidays; Christmas and New Year’s holiday,” Braden said.

International travel was “decimated” due to restrictive quarantine measures at the time and countries requiring travelers to take a COVID-19 test, according to Braden. Due to this, he said that international travel will not recover for some time.

“It’s not expected really to recover for several years to the levels that it were previously,” Braden said. 

People are still traveling within the United States, however, to destinations where they can get outside and socially distance, Braden said.

“Even in the fall, a lot of the activity was to destinations that you could call open, and by that I mean places like beaches or mountains or deserts,” Braden said. 

Bell also said that many tourists departing Richmond are traveling to less urban, open areas.

“People are traveling to places like Florida,” Bell said. “They’re also traveling to some of the mountain destinations where the perception is lots of space, lots of fresh air, lots of elbow room and few restrictions.” 

Some of the most popular U.S. travel destinations are Orlando, Florida; Los Angeles; Denver; and Atlanta, according to Yingling.

There are going to be a number of changes in air travel trends according to Rick Hamilton, a senior distinguished engineer for Optum and a frequent business flier.

“I think that leisure travel is probably going to pick up faster than business travel because everybody has this pent up desire for a vacation or to go see distant loved ones,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said that for the airline industry to recover, business travel needs to pick back up again, but it may resume more slowly than personal travel.

“If I’m flying internationally, my company will buy a business class ticket,” he said. “If I’m flying internationally on my own dollar, I tend to buy coach tickets, economy class, and so the airline industry needs business travel to resume in order for their business models to really work.”

However, Hamilton said that businesses are completing more tasks online and virtually, using video conferencing software, for example.

Even though businesses may have found an alternate method to traveling through the use of online tools, the prospect of better deals through face-to-face interaction could spark business travel once again, Bell explained.

Bell said once more companies start sending more representatives out to the field others will follow.

“As soon as that happens, you’re going to find that other folks make the adjustment to get out there, too,” Bell said.

After 15 months, Hamilton is ready to fly again and recently bought his first air tickets for leisure travel. He advises travelers to follow guidelines and get vaccinated.

“I’m not extremely excited about sitting next to a stranger, you know, next to me on a plane,” Hamilton said. “But I believe that once you’re vaccinated and follow all the normal CDC protocols, that it’s an acceptable risk to get life back to normal, or something resembling normal.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that vaccinated individuals don’t have to wear masks or social distance unless a law or regulation requires it. Passengers must still wear masks in airports and on planes, however.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

How Virginia’s data protection law will affect consumers, businesses

By Hyung Jun Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Information technology experts say a new Virginia consumer data protection law could be more robust, but it will force businesses to rethink how they handle consumer data.

“This is the first time in Virginia that consumers will have the right to understand what data a company collects about them, and how they use that data and who they share it with,” said Andrew Miller, the co-founder of Workshop Digital, a Richmond-based digital marketing agency.

Senate Bill 1392 and House Bill 2307 are known as the Consumer Data Protection Act, or CDPA. The governor signed both bills into law this month.

The CDPA allows Virginia residents to retrieve a copy of their personal online data and delete the data. Consumers can opt out of allowing businesses to sell their data. 

Personal data is information that can be linked to a consumer’s profile, according to Joseph Jerome, director of state advocacy at San Francisco-based Common Sense Media. The nonprofit rates movies, TV shows and other media for age appropriateness and learning potential. 

“It’s important to have a broad understanding of personal data,” said Jerome, a lawyer whose expertise includes cybersecurity and data privacy.

What data will be affected

The law defines personal data as information that is linked or reasonably linkable to a person. 

“Consumers tend to think of personal information as something like their Social Security number or an email address, but new privacy regulations are really trying to get at the sorts of data that go into customer profiles,” Jerome said.

A company can attach traits to a user, such as the individual’s perceived race, education level and political affiliation, according to Jerome. 

“The issue isn't so much what one single company collects, but rather how companies share data among themselves and use that information to infer even more about us,” he said.

Some companies track consumers’ location.

“If a person is at location A at time Y and location B at time Z, if those two locations are coordinates for your home and office, it’s pretty easy to infer who that person is,” Jerome said.

The CDPA impacts companies which handle the data of at least 100,000 consumers annually, or which control or process the data of at least 25,000 consumers and make over half of their gross revenue from selling data.

CDPA exceptions

There are exceptions. Companies won’t have to participate if they are protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act which restricts the release of medical information or the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act to protect health and financial data. The GLBA requires financial institutions to safeguard sensitive banking information.

“So in certain scenarios, Google is a business associate under HIPAA,” Jerome said. “Apple offers financial products on its iPhone, you know, has the Apple credit card.”

The Virginia measure is different from the 2018 California Consumer Privacy Act. The California law also regulates how companies buy, sell, license and share data but with stricter parameters in place. California voters recently voted to amend and strengthen the privacy act, with the changes going into effect in 2023. Unlike the Virginia law, California consumers can pursue legal action for a breach of certain information. In Virginia, the attorney general's office would handle the enforcement of the CDPA, from consumer complaints to the enforcement of fines. 

The California law impacted businesses in Virginia, such as Richmond-based IT consulting firm CapTech. The company helps clients bring IT systems into compliance with the California law, said CapTech Principal Peter Carr. 

“It affected our business in that it gave us more opportunities to sell into our clients and to help them with their problems around privacy,” Carr said. 

Businesses predict impact

CapTech is preparing for Virginia’s new data protection law to go into effect. 

“I briefed my partners on the law, we made some projections as to how much business we could generate from this law and how many clients this could apply to,” Carr said.

Other experts in the data field speculate that the CDPA could force businesses to rethink the value of consumer data. Miller, the co-founder of Workshop Digital, said companies can highlight how they protect consumer data to stand out from competitors.

“When you’re telling your customers that we actually care about your data, we keep it secure, here’s how you can access it and what you can ask for us to remove, then I think it shows that the business is aligned with the customer,” Miller said.

He also said the CDPA could move the focus from collection of data to the protection of consumer data.

“If it passes as it’s written now, it’ll mostly affect larger businesses or companies that aggregate and collect a lot of data about Virginia consumers or citizens,” Miller said. “It’ll force companies to rethink how they capture data, what they use it for, how much data they actually need and start to pivot towards having a privacy-driven message to their consumers.”

Consumers will have the ability to exert some control over how their data is used by businesses and across the internet, according to Randy Franklin, the vice-president and general manager at Terazo, a Richmond-based software and platform development company. 

“This bill is important for consumers because consumers are increasingly aware of the fact that they are tracked in their online activities,” Franklin said. “They want to understand that the information that these providers and businesses are collecting on them is used in a manner that aligns with how they would like to see that information be used.”

Concerns over data protection act

Jerome said Common Sense Media has concerns about the bill and said several things are still unclear. People do not read privacy policies and can be overwhelmed by choices such as requesting or deleting personal information, he added.

“We’re not entirely sure how it’ll be enforced, there are a number of provisions in the law that are, for a lack of a better word, squishy,” Jerome said. “That said, you know, it certainly creates a baseline set of protections that don’t exist for Virginians.” 

Furthermore, to be effective, Miller said the bill requires that Virginia consumers are informed about their rights to access their data.

“The way it’s written now is it puts the emphasis on the consumer to request their data or request their data be deleted,” Miller said. “It doesn’t obligate a company to do that proactively without the consumer requesting it.”

Miller and Jerome hope the CDPA will encourage discussion in Congress and help create a broader national data protection law.

“It’s the first step towards figuring out what a national data protection or data privacy law could look like, which would benefit consumers everywhere rather than just having a patchwork of state specific laws and regulations,” Miller said.

The Consumer Data Protection Act will take effect January 2023. The chairman of the Joint Commission on Technology and Science will establish a work group to review the bill and report any issues related to its implementation by Nov. 1.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia lawmakers advance Consumer Data Protection Act

By Hyung Jun Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly is advancing legislation that allows Virginia consumers more protection with their online data, though opponents say the measure does not include the ability for people to file private lawsuits against companies that breach the proposed law.

The measure is known as the Consumer Data Protection Act in both chambers of the state legislature. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, passed the House 89-9 on Thursday. The House version, sponsored by Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, is awaiting a final vote but was passed by for the day Thursday.

“The consumers should have the right to know what is being collected about them,” Hayes said when introducing the bill.

The data protection act allows consumers to retrieve a copy of their online data, amend or delete this data and opt out of allowing large businesses to sell the data. 

Hayes wants businesses to responsibly handle consumer information. 

“The bottom line is, we want the controllers to know what their role is when it comes to the protection of individual’s data,” Hayes said during a House committee meeting. “We believe that no matter who you are as an organization, you need to be responsible when it comes to handling of data of consumers.”

The bills apply to businesses that control or process personal data of at least 100,000 consumers per year. It also impacts businesses that handle data of at least 25,000 consumers per year and make more than half of their gross revenue from selling personal data. The businesses must be located in Virginia or serve Virginians. 

Under the Consumer Data Protection Act, the attorney general’s office would handle the enforcement of this legislation. The office would handle anything from consumer complaints to the enforcement of fines. 

“The attorney general’s office will have the depth and breadth, experience, the investigative tools necessary to know and to follow trends of companies and to make sure that they bring the muscle of that office to the table,” Hayes said.

Microsoft’s Senior Director of Public Policy Ryan Harkins testified in favor of the proposed law. 

“We’ve seen dramatic changes in technology over the past couple of decades and U.S. law has failed to keep pace,” Harkins said. “It’s fallen behind much of the rest of the world and failed to address growing challenges of privacy.” 

Harkins said that Microsoft has advocated for data protection laws since 2005. He said that the public has lost trust in technology, and passing comprehensive data protection legislation can help win the public’s trust back.

Harkins said that the measure stands alongside leading data protection legislation such as California’s Consumer Privacy Act and aspects of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.

“In some respects, it would go further and provide the most comprehensive and robust privacy laws in the United States,” Harkins said.

Attorney Mark Dix spoke in opposition of the bill on behalf of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association. He said the measure would hurt Virginians because it is “going to close the courthouse doors.”

“It provides no cause of action whatsoever for the consumer, the person who is actually hurt,” Dix said. “It provides no remedy whatsoever for the consumer.”

Dix argued that having the attorney general’s office handle the enforcement of this legislation limits the consumer.Using a hypothetical scenario, Dix asked what would happen to Virginians if there was an administration change and the Attorney General did not prioritize data protection.

The Consumer Data Protection Act would take effect in January 2023. Marsden told a Senate subcommittee that allows time to “deal and field any other tweaks to the bill or difficulties that someone figures out.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Bill to reduce felony drug possession charges dies in subcommittee

By Hyung Jun Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia lawmakers hoped to advance a bill that would eliminate felony drug possession charges and shift a focus to treatment, not punishment, of substance abuse. The measure had bipartisan support and backing from many commonwealth attorneys’ and lawyers around the state, but it died in a House subcommittee. 

Anyone found in possession of controlled substances would face misdemeanor charges under House Bill 2303 introduced by Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. The bill would also amend the conditions set for probation under the current first offender statute, which allows drug possession charges to be dismissed if certain conditions are met.

A person caught with the possession of a schedule I or schedule II controlled substances under the current law could be sentenced up to 10 years in prison. That includes drugs with high potential for abuse and dependence such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Possession of items with drug residue on them can also lead to felony charges, such as a crack pipe or heroin needle.

Under Virginia’s first offender statute individuals with no previous narcotic criminal record may get their case dismissed if they successfully pass a treatment program, make efforts to maintain employment, complete community service and remain drug and alcohol free during probation. 

Hudson proposed changes to the statute that requires people to continue being tested but not that they continue to test negative. Hudson said that is in recognition “that relapse is a part of recovery from any drug abuse.”

Hudson said that incarcerating someone for drug possession is not the correct way to treat substance abuse.

“It’s a concrete step we can take this year to reduce the harmful consequences of prolonged incarceration as an ineffective deterrent and treatment strategy for substance abuse,” Hudson said during the House Courts of Justice subcommittee hearing for the bill. 

Nathan Mitchell, community outreach and advocacy coordinator at the Henrico County-based McShin Foundation, said the bill is the first step toward reforming the criminal justice system. The McShin Foundation offers multiple programs for those in recovery from substance abuse.

Mitchell, a former felon , said the current system can be damaging to people who suffer from the disease of addiction.

“I became a felon,” Mitchell said. “And with that all of my civil rights, my ability to vote, my ability to run for office, serve on a jury, have a gun were all taken away with one fell swoop.” 

Anyone charged with a felony in Virginia loses civil rights such as the right to vote, hold office, and serve as a juror. The bill would remove felony violations of drug possession from the definition of barrier crimes related to criminal history checks for employment and a range of volunteer opportunities. 

“Health care problems require health care solutions and HB 2303 is a good first step at recognizing that drugs and substance use disorder are not a criminal justice issue,” Mitchell said. “They are in fact, a health care issue.”

Misdemeanor possession is already employed in many states such as Iowa, Oklahoma and Mississippi and also neighboring states such as West Virginia, Tennessee and the District of Columbia.

 “It is a drug reform that has bipartisan support coast to coast,” Hudson said.

South Carolina and Iowa have enacted similar legislation and utilize escalating penalties where the punishment increases with every subsequent offense, according to Attorney Steve Mutnick, who serves as General Assembly counsel. In Iowa, a first time drug possession offense is a one-year misdemeanor. However, the third offense is a five-year felony. 

“Continuing to accelerate the penalty and incarcerate someone for longer doesn’t seem to really get at the root cause,” Hudson said.

Norfolk Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Ramin Fatehi testified in support of the bill on behalf of six commonwealth’s attorneys from across the state.

“Substance abuse disorder is a matter of public health and that the primary focus of dealing with a public health issue should be the public health system,” Fatehi said. 

Though the legislation marks a departure from the state’s approach to drug possession, Fatehi said the measure would bring Virginia in alignment with neighboring states and the federal system. 

Fatehi said the only concern they had was directly addressed by the language in a budget amendment submitted by Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield. The budget amendment would divert money saved from less incarceration due to reduced felony drug possession charges into treatment programs. Coyner said that jails report there aren’t enough treatment service programs.

“This is a rare instance where we can both be more just and create a significant cost savings for the people of the commonwealth of Virginia,” Fatehi said.

Supporters of the bill pointed out that the legislation was not decriminalizing or legalizing drugs or condoning the use of hard drugs. The measure also would not reduce felony charges for people caught distributing drugs or possessing drugs to distribute. 

“There is no simple possession that is worth more than 12 months in jail,” Fatehi said.

Richard Johnson, with the Virginia Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he lost his nephew to a heroin addiction. 

“Instead of policy wise trying to teach people with addiction a lesson, this legislation tries to solve the problem,” Johnson said.

The panel never picked Hudson’s bill back up before crossover day, which is when each chamber must complete voting on any bills that will be advanced to the other chamber. Delegates said the bill was important, but there was concern about having enough time to secure the funding needed to redirect into treatment. A substitute was submitted on Feb. 3 but never heard before the subcommittee.

Hudson said the bill addressed the most immediate harms. 

“We will go another year of marking another wave of Virginias with this stamp that bears life long consequences,” she said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

 

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