REVIEW: Japan Airlines Business Class New York - Tokyo Narita
Japan Airlines (JL) and I have a long history with one another. As a budding aviation and travel nerd growing up in Japan, I was frequently exposed to JL’s reputation and advertising. Despite years of loyalty to the oneworld alliance and frequent trips to Japan and beyond, I never managed to snag myself a seat in a premium cabin on Japan Airlines. It was always the back of the bus for this traveler. When I hit the drawing board while planning my last oneworld explorer award, one of my primary goals was to finally book myself a ticket that allowed me to experience the Japanese carrier’s business class product.
Originally I was supposed to fly on JL’s (at the time) newly inaugurated Boston (BOS) to Tokyo Narita (NRT) route on their brand new Boeing 787. Unfortunately that plane experienced quite a few birthing pains after its initial launch and with the date of my departure on Japan Airlines slowly creeping up, it was becoming increasingly clear that my flight on the carrier’s 787 wasn’t going to happen. With only days before my departure and no end in sight to the mandatory grounding of the planes, I reached out to American Airlines and ended up being rerouted from BOS to New York’s JFK and onward to NRT on JL’s more reliable 777-300ER.
Being a distance-based award, I didn’t plan on hanging out in NRT for very long, and booked myself an onward connection to Frankfurt (FRA). An unconventional routing but I wanted a reason to fly in JL’s business cabin for a long time. The NRT-FRA flight ended up being operated by a similar, yet slightly different, version of JL’s 773 so I won’t be posting any pictures or thoughts on the NRT-FRA route as it was essentially the exact same experience. If anything it seems Japan Airlines is consistent. These flights took place in January of this year (yes, I’m fully aware of just how behind I am with my blogging, thanks!) and since then Japan Airlines has been aggressively rolling out its new Sky Suite product which features an updated, fully lie flat business class seat onto the JFK-NRT route (and quite a few others). An angled lie-flat product will still be featured on JL’s 787s and a few 773s for at least a few more years, so there is at least some utility to documenting my experience.
Despite all my years of travel, I’d never departed from a terminal at JFK other than AA’s facility at Terminal 8. Wait, I take that back. In 2008 I transited one of Delta’s terminals on my way to Athens (ATH) but that experience was so horrific that I’ve blocked out almost everything from landing to take off. I do recall a bucket catching water dripping from the ceiling though. And the smell of aged cheese. Still, it was a bit of an adventure for me to land at JFK and make my way to another terminal using the Air Train.
Unlike many of its fellow oneworld partners, Japan Airlines has not co-located their facilities at JFK into AA’s Terminal 8. They still utilize Terminal 1 along side carriers such as Air France, Korean Air, and Lufthansa. Luckily the next stop on the Air Train from Terminal 8 is Terminal 1, so the transition was relatively easy for me.
While spacious, the terminal felt a bit run down and oddly cramped. Vaulted ceilings giving the illusion of space but all the desks on the floor seemed crammed together.
My flight from Boston allowed me almost 4 hours of transit time, so when I arrived to check-in for my Japan Airlines flight there were literally zero passengers in line attempting to check-in. It was literally just me and four agents. Despite the ratio, I wasn’t overly impressed with the experience.
No smiles from the agent today. I handed over my passport and replied “Tokyo” when asked where I was headed. She clicked into her computer for a few seconds before sighing and saying “And then to Frankfurt? Such an odd decision. You can fly there from New York much easier than this.” Duly noted ma’am, but why would you encourage me to take my business elsewhere? Despite the indifferent customer service I had my boarding pass in hand quite quickly and my baggage was checked in to NRT. She directed me toward the security lanes and did not wish me a good flight. I’m sure she was just trying to get to the next person in line, right?
The security line had almost no people in it, but the cattle corrals for moving traffic still somehow made it feel a bit cramped. I was through in no time thankfully despite witnessing the TSA agents berate foreign visitors for not understanding his vague instructions. JFK is one of the few outstations where Japan Airlines still maintains a Sakura Lounge for its passengers, and it’s quite easy to find in Terminal 1 as it’s directly in front of the security exit. You can’t miss it. I’m going to forego discussing my experience at the lounge and will be posting that as a separate entry. My summary of the experience – it was better than outpatient surgery. Barely.
Boarding was, as expected, extremely orderly. Japanese airlines never fail me when it comes to controlling the masses as they embark on a plane trip. Clearly marked lanes for boarding with staff on hand holding signs, directing traffic, and confirming passengers are in the correct lane. Always a pleasure!
Upon entering the aircraft I was greeted by two smiling FAs and directed back toward my seat – 14A. The difference between the American check-in staff and the Japanese FAs was night and day, but that in and of itself isn’t very surprising sadly.
Waiting for me at the seat were a small pillow as well as a beige blanket. My seat was located in the bulkhead/first row of a rear mini-cabin on JL’s 773, featuring two rows of seats in a 2-3-2 configuration.
My first impressions of the seat were positive. Being in a 2-3-2 configuration, I immediately drew comparisons to the older angled lie-flat business class product American currently operates on routes to Japan. In almost every way I seem to prefer the seat on Japan Airlines over the AA offering. The padding on the seat felt much more comfortable than AA’s seat. The seats also appeared to be maintained much better, looking fresh and clean despite being an aging product offering. The shell surrounding the seat was smaller than it was on AA though, so the seat is more exposed and less private.
I looked around and noted that the bulkhead aisle had quite a bit of open space and leg room.
I also up noted that this flight would feature JL’s Sky WiFi product and got a bit excited. I’d never been able to use wifi on an international flight prior to this, so I could add that to my list of “firsts” today.
A few minutes into boarding and it became clear that the load on this flight was going to be extremely light. Economy class passengers were making their way through the aisle on their way to their seats and there were literally 20-40 second gaps between each person making their way down the aisle. I’d guess that the flight was no more than 40% full in economy class, and 30% full in business. In my little mini-cabin there ended up being 5 passengers out of 14 seats.
With the light load and my early boarding, I started fiddling around with the seat controls and features.
Each seat features a flexible LED reading light. The light it produced was quite powerful but the LED was almost painfully bright in the dark plane cabin later in the flight. Headphone jacks were located on the console near the lights.
The IFE was not active while we were at the gate but I still pulled out the controller to examine the quality. It’s a fairly standard old school IFE remote. Features are labeled in English and in Japanese and the FA call button is located prominently at the top. Despite feeling quite old the remote was clean and free of residue from the previous passenger, which is always a good thing in my book.
With boarding now dwindling down to the last few stragglers the FAs started making their rounds around the business class cabin and handing out menus and amenity items to the passengers. Sticking with Japanese airline quirkiness, no pre-departure beverage was served.
FAs also started to ask passengers whether they’d like a set of pajamas for the flight. Being totally naive, I answered in the affirmative when asked without fulling thinking through what I had just requested. Despite being half-Japanese, I definitely have an American-sized body. This meant that even the XL pajamas provided by the ever polite Japan Airlines FA was no where near large enough for me to comfortably fit into. The material was quite nice and soft to the touch. The pajamas were actually a matching pant and cardigan set.
The FA also dropped off a pair of slippers, which she was kind enough to give me two pairs of – one for use on the plane and one for my collection of airline memorabilia at home. :)
The doors were finally closed and the crew announced that we were ready for push back. My iPhone was turned to airplane mode but close at hand in case I needed to snap a photo, I began to casually browse through JL’s inflight magazine and duty free catalogs. I even leafed through the safety card.
One thing I really enjoy about JL’s Skyward inflight magazine are the travel pieces they do on lesser known Japanese destinations. This edition’s featured destinations were the national park islands north of Hokkaido – Rebun and Rishiri. Reached only through ferry boats departing from already remote Wakkanai on Hokkaido’s north coast, the islands are known for their delicious seafood, excellent hiking opportunities, and fields of glorious alpine flowers. Let’s add that to the bucket list, shall we?
After about 15 minutes of circling out of JFK and finally aligning eastward toward Japan, the FAs started making their rounds through the cabin and dropping off hot towels and small glasses of orange juice.
Another FA made her way into our mini-cabin and started distributing Panasonic noise-canceling headsets.
After a few refreshing sips of OJ the FA reappeared and dropped off two packages of snacks (Japanese rice crackers and baked cheesy corn sticks).
It was a bit odd to be handed the snacks in a plastic package. I can’t think of another airline I’ve personally flown in business class that didn’t provide the pre-dinner snacks in a dish. I know I’ve heard of other airlines doing it, but this was my first personal experience. While it’s really a small thing overall, it did feel a bit low-budget and cheap. Certainly not something I’d associate with the first rate service the Japanese are known for.
Those snacks were pretty good though. ;)
FAs swung through the cabin again and took drink orders. If you’ve read any of my previous trip reports you know that I don’t drink alcohol, which means I’m a big fan of non-alcoholic specialty drinks offered on various carriers. Japan Airlines carries one of my all time favorite airline beverages – SkyTime, a yuzu citrus-flavored non-carbonated drink. Without skipping a step I requested some from the FA, who promptly returned with a glass.
Japan Airlines has a bit of an interesting approach to their in-flight dining experience on long haul flights. They serve a formal meal at the beginning of the flight and then essentially offer a variety of snack items and meals on an a la carte basis for the remainder of the flight. Here’s the full menu that was offered on my journey:
I’m typically a big fan of Asian food, Japanese food in particular, but on this occasion most of the Japanese choices weren’t appealing to me. I ended up asking the FA if it would be possible to have the Japanese starters but have the Western steak entree. This request was met with a confused smile, a few blinks, and then an almost whispered, “Let me check….” before she headed back toward the galley. I waited a few minutes when another FA reappeared and dropped off the Western starter with a bow and a smile. I guess that was my answer!
I picked at these offerings a bit, as it was really wasn’t something I was interested in eating, before an FA asked me if I was ready for the next course.
This offering was much more to my liking! The lobster was sweet and nicely prepared, and the prosciutto added a nice salty kick to the dish. The mixed greens were fresh and there were even a few stalks of asparagus hidden underneath.
For my entree I had selected the steak. Odd for me since I’m usually not a big fan of beef, let alone whole slabs of beef like a steak. It just seemed like a good choice at the time, and I’m glad I selected it. The meat ended up being juicy and medium rare. The mushroom sauce that accompanied the steak was light but flavorful, which is important to me because I’m not a big fan of thick/heavy sauces when eating steak. The only downside to the dish is that I don’t particularly care for carrots (actually I loathe them) and the three tiny potatoes weren’t quite filling. Not an issue when you’re in business class and can order anything you like though.
The FAs politely collected my plate after I was finished and asked me if I’d like any coffee or tea to help my meal settle. Coffee suddenly sounded like a great idea so I agreed to the proposition. Within a minute the FA was dropping off a cup of hot coffee along with the tiramisu that was listed on the menu. As appetizing as it looked and as good as it smelled, I sadly had to skip eating it. Along with my “no booze” Debbie Downer syndrome, I also have an odd reaction to chocolate. Breaking out in hives and having my hands swell up to twice their size isn’t something I’m interesting in doing on a trans-Pacific flight, and that cocoa dusting at the top looked like danger to me.
With the light load in business class the meal service was done fairly quickly, and by the time we were soaring over the middle of Canada the FAs had collected everyone’s dishes and dimmed the cabin lights. I fired up my laptop at this point and decided to sign on and see how the Sky WiFi service worked.
The log-in screens weren’t exactly the most user-friendly, but eventually I figured out how to navigate the system and was checking my email and updating my Facebook. Service was slower than hotel wifi but faster than dial-up. I’d say it was quite similar to 3G wireless data. It was a technological striptease – showing you most of the goods upfront but making you wait a bit longer for the the complete reveal.
After an hour or two of putzing around on my computer I decided to take a look at JL’s IFE selection. My previous experience flying domestically and on regional routes in economy class have left me rather unimpressed with JL’s MAGIC IFE systems. I find the selection to generally be quite limited when it comes to English programming. I’m not surprised that the Japanese programming is so large (it’s a Japanese airline after all!), it’s more that the English selection is so small. Carriers like Cathay Pacific and Emirates do a much better job with their multi-lingual IFE.
Being in a bulkhead row my IFE was located in the arm rest and the screen was much smaller than you’d expect for a business class cabin. Other passengers in non-bulkhead rows had seatback IFE screens that were much larger.
Just like always, a few English language movies and TV shows but not a huge selection. Nothing I wanted to see (I’d have watched Pitch Perfect but it would have been about the 10th time), so I folded it back up and decided I would rather read my Kindle.
After a few hours of reading I got up to stretch my legs a bit and use the rest room, which was located directly in front of my seat. Across from the bathroom was a little shelf which was set up with an assortment of snacks for business class passengers. High-end chocolates, rice crackers, cookies, chips, etc. They also propped a menu up on the shelf to remind you of the “Anytime You Like” menu options that are available at any time during the flight.
I hopped into the bathroom, which was your standard issue airplane loo. Not very spacious, though they did stock some toiletries to help you to freshen up. Japan Airlines is one of the few major airlines that does not provide its passengers with amenity kits in business class. The FAs walk through the cabin at the beginning and toward the end of the flight with baskets full of items you’d normally find within a kit – chap stick, wet naps, ear plugs, etc. This saves on waste but, similar to the plastic wrapped snacks served with drinks, it comes off a bit low budget.
When I returned to my seat I decided I was feeling a little hungry. JL’s FAs were seen regularly patrolling the cabin at set intervals, so it wasn’t too hard to flag someone down.
I went over the menu and decided I wanted to try the Tokyo Curry Lab x Japan Airlines vegetable keema curry with steamed rice. If you’ve never had Japanese-style curry with rice, I suggest you add it to your bucket list. This was a frequent meal in my house growing up as a kid and I’m a huge fan.
JL’s beef curry at its NRT lounge is fairly notorious in the oneworld elite community for being a great offering, and the onboard keema vegetable version didn’t disappoint either. It was by far the best airplane meal I had on that flight. It’s likely the best meal I’ve had on an airplane in years to be quite honest. Full of flavor, the rice was cooked perfectly (which is tough with airplane food, it always ends up dry and crunchy). A+ on this meal.
Fully sated at this point, I decided it was time to try to catch a little sleep. I extended my seat into its fully recline position, which was quite similar to the angle offered on AA’s older angled lie-flat seats.
*sorry for the picture quality, it was a dim cabin and I had to work with the light from my reading lamp*
Overall, not the best business class seat I’ve ever attempted to sleep in. oneworld partner Cathay Pacific and AA’s new business class seat both blow this one out of the water. To be fair, as I mentioned at the start of the report, Japan Airlines is replacing these older business class seats on their long haul routes with a fully flat Sky Suite product. It’s already being operated on routes to London, Paris, New York, and Los Angeles. I still was able to catch some good sleep in the seat, so at the end of the day it certainly beats an economy seat. This version just doesn’t hold up with what other partners, and competitors, are offering. It’s a good thing they’re changing these seats out.
I woke up off the northern coast of Japan when the lights were turned back on about an hour and a half out of NRT. An FA was making her way through the cabin handing out more hot towels to help passengers refresh from their sleep. Since Japan Airlines has an a la carte menu after the first meal, I grabbed the menu and quickly decided that I would like to enjoy some food before we landed. I used the FA call button and within 30 seconds a smiling FA was at my seat asking me what she could help me with. I asked for the 5th Avenue burger with potato chips. She notified me this might take a little longer to cook, but I said that would be fine and she was off to place the order.
Typically airplane food is served in smaller portions than restaurant food, especially in premium cabins. Petite food = haute cuisine ya know? This wasn’t the case with the burger Japan Airlines served me. It was 100% American-sized. I was a bit taken a back by how much food was presented to me. This was a big burger folks. Luckily the taste of both the burger and the potato chips were spot on so I didn’t have any issues making sure I cleared my plate!
Once my plate was picked up the cabin became a flurry of activity as FAs and passenger alike started to prepare for landing in NRT. I was simply overnighting on my way to Frankfurt so I wasn’t too concerned with changing into fresh clothes as I only intended to head through immigration and hop the free shuttle to my hotel for the evening – Hilton Narita.
The cabin crew thanked us for our business in the middle of our descent into NRT and once on the ground and we started tdeplane the FAs were stationed around the exits wishing customers well and bowing.
Overall, I was happy with my first business class flight on Japan Airlines. The service by the staff was extremely efficient and polite. My main issue in the service department was the lack of English-language training for cabin crew. The confusion over my meal request being a prime example. Japan Airlines has always lagged behind other Asian competitors in staffing cabin crew that are comfortable using more than just their native tongue. Despite the barrier, they provided service with a smile and made sure I was comfortable and feed the entire trip.
The seat itself was quite outdated. Angled lie-flat seats are slowly becoming relics of a previous age in luxury aviation travel within the big name airlines, and JL’s decision to transition to the new Sky Suite product is wise for a carrier of their standing. Despite the older seat I was able to remain comfortable for the entire flight and the cushioning was sufficient to make sure I didn’t wake up with sores and kinks. IFE certainly needs work but there don’t seem to be any plans in the work to address that for now.
Food was one of the high points of the flight, and a definitely a reason I would consider flying with Japan Airlines again, angled lie-flat seat and all. Good thing I won’t have to worry about that in a few months though, as all North American routes serviced by 773s should have transitioned to the new lie flat product. So a thumbs up on JL’s business class service, though I’ve definitely added the new Sky Suite cabin to my wish list for travel in 2014.