A traveler is seen in the departure hall of Kuwait International Airport in this Aug 1, 2020 file photo. – Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat

By Ben Garcia

June is usually the busiest month at the airport, with both expats and locals traveling to escape the scorching summer heat of Kuwait. But this year, like the summer of 2020, the airport is mostly quiet. It is also technically closed after 8 pm, when businesses unrelated to food or medicine have to close.

Only a few flights are allowed, while arrivals are limited to Kuwaitis and domestic helpers. As a result, activities at the airport have been drastically reduced to less than a fourth of regular operations. Some employees are still working from home.

“We are dreaming to return to our normal operations,” said Amante Peralta Jr, who has been working as a sales associate at a shop at Kuwait International Airport for the past eight years. “This pandemic brought us to a literal standstill. The last two years have been very hard, sad and emotional. Many of my colleagues were terminated, while others are working from home,” he said. Peralta’s company usually operates the shop at the airport 24/7, but work timings have been reduced to only 12 hours.

“This pandemic has been very harsh on people. We are afraid, but we have to work to sustain our families. There has been a drastic change in the attitude of people. Normally, we talked to almost everyone; now we avoid talking to others. The more you keep quiet and maintain a distance, the more you’ll be fine and safe. I have to take extra precautions now because I have my family here in Kuwait to protect. My wife and I have two kids and we all want them to be safe. This virus is killing people, but we refuse to be counted among the casualties,” he said.

Peralta tested positive for COVID-19 last year. “My whole family suffered from the virus last year. It lasted in our family for a month, then we tested negative,” he added. With his experience of the virus, Peralta is now taking extra precautions and avoiding people to be safe.

“My work is at the entry point of people arriving from abroad. We are the first to encounter arriving passengers. If they are infected from their country of origin, we are next to get it. Even though we have been vaccinated, I am still taking extra precautions,” he said. “This new environment, new setup and new lifestyle for everyone is hard, but this is the only way. Most of the people here at the airport are vaccinated as we have been asked to comply with the company’s regulations. I can see people wearing facemasks as mandated by the government, but there are a few who don’t wear it properly,” Peralta observed.

Peralta’s colleagues hail from a variety of nationalities, but many of them were terminated and returned to their respective countries. “We had five people working at our small store here; three either moved to other companies or returned to their country of origin. Timings have been reduced to 12 hours. Since we are slowly going back to full operations, the company is trying to hire new staff locally. If the country returns to normalcy, they will get staff from abroad,” he said.

Lester Garcia, who previously worked as a wheelchair service assistant at the airport, was laid off during the early days of the pandemic. “At that time, hundreds of workers like me were terminated. The termination notice period ended in September last year, but we were given a chance to look for another job. I started working for another company from September 15, but in late November I was reinstated to my previous job. Since there were no arrivals at that time, I was assigned to another department. Many of us who were terminated were recalled to our old jobs, especially after we failed to transfer our visas to other companies,” he said.

Their visas are under government projects, which are normally nontransferable. “I started working at a logistics company immediately after being terminated from the airport. But my previous company called me to join them again with the same contract, but I got a new job title as support staff for arriving passengers,” Garcia said. He also answers queries of travelers as part of the a Belsalamah project of Kuwait International Airport.