Flying domestic in Kenya is about to get very competitive for airlines and the game changer is not a new carrier but a train service.
News on Kenya’s spanking new standard gauge railway is that the operator is “full steam” ahead for a June 1 launch of a passenger and cargo rail service.
The service may not be by electric or bullet trains, but the diesel powered locomotives will be faster than the rickety colonial era relic the SGR is replacing. And the long term wishes of travellers to reduce the travel time between Kenya’s busiest city pair (in terms of passenger movement) of Nairobi and Mombasa will be actualised.
The promised four-and-a-half-hour train ride between the two cities does not only have direct implications for how we travel on the surface but is also bound to affect flying.
In fact, airlines have several reasons to be concerned by the advent of the train service as do bus service providers because the train service is uniquely poised to be in between the two extreme modes of travel available.
First, let us examine the time factor; the four-hour train ride may seem like a much longer time considering that a Nairobi-Mombasa flight takes at most one hour.
But if you consider ground time before take-off — checking in an hour before departure after battling traffic and a hectic security check — then it’s well into 2-3 hours even by flight.
Expectedly, the flyer not pressured by time is bound to switch to the train service if other factors like comfort and pricing are right.
Second, a train ticket on the new service is certainly bound to be cheaper than even the most affordable low cost-carrier plying the route.
Even though business class tickets on trains are expensive in other parts of the world, for the domestic traveller who cannot afford airline business class, the train offers an option to sample a premier class of travel at an affordable price.
Other than the expected affordability, train passengers certainly won’t feel like they are navigating a land mine when dealing with changes of reservations and cancellations — an experience that almost always leaves airline passengers feeling bitter and short-changed.
Third, and this will be a winner with most passengers — baggage allowance. The current baggage allowance policy of most airlines on domestic routes is punitive and very restrictive on the weight and pieces allowed.
The train service, on the other hand, will most likely offer a much more flexible baggage allowance to travellers.
Fourth, like most passenger train services elsewhere, the new train service is expected to offer options of first, business and economy classes cabin service, with certainly more legroom in the premier class.
Of course, the three-a-side seating on your regular commercial airliner is a bit of a squeeze for the train, which even in economy class will offer more comfort in terms of seats.
This coupled with onboard amenities like continuous catering services, Internet connectivity, power outlets and the scenic ride through the countryside will be an experience travellers will relish.
Also Read: The allure of business class travel
The above factors are going to be very hard to resist even for the most ardent of flyers who will feel that they have an alternative to the sometimes-unreliable airline services.
Admittedly, a well packaged and executed rail service is no match for airlines over short domestic destinations.
So where does this new train service leave airlines? Well it’s not as grim as it may seem, as ardent flyers and those pressed for time will always fly.
At the same time, regionally and internationally, there will be a new potential created for airlines and the leisure traveller.
Intuitive airlines in other parts of the world have found a way to co-exist with and complement rail services through various mutually beneficial commercial partnerships.
For instance, one could, say, book a British Airways ticket from London to Mombasa via Nairobi but opt to travel Nairobi–Mombasa by rail if the two have a codeshare agreement in place.
Likewise, domestic carriers may also partner with the rail service to offer “back up” in case of service interruptions at the major airports. In such cases, as in the examples above, train services will be available for booking in reservation systems and even global distribution systems.
Don’t be surprised if in a few months’ time your travel agent offers you a choice between a airline and a train seat.
This post was earlier published in The East African Magazine May 7, 2017 Rail service as an option to flying.