REVIEW: Japan Airlines Economy Class Tokyo Narita - Singapore
While the aviation community has settled down from the fanfare that followed the launch of the Boeing 787 almost four years ago, I have to admit that for me the excitement is still alive and well. There's just something about the sexy way those composite wings flex as it takes off and soars into the sky. *coughs* *crosses legs*
Unfortunately I wasn't able to fly on this aircraft within the first year of its operation, but I was able to hop onto it not too long after its debut. I needed to get to Thailand as I had planned on a few relaxing days on the beaches of Khao Lak, just north of Phuket. I was able to find a pretty cheap plane ticket on American Airlines and Japan Airlines (JL) to Singapore (SIN) through Tokyo Narita (NRT). Once there, I would make my way onward to Phuket on separate tickets. I had a few options that were similarly priced to other excellent gateway cities in Asia, however, the AA/JL tickets allowed me to take my first trip on the 787 - so, sold.
Winner, winner, chicken dinner.
I was able to upgrade my flight from Chicago to NRT on AA, so I was nice and rested when I landed. To fly out on the 787 I needed to actually do an overnight connection in NRT, so I cleared customs and immigration and headed to the Hilton a few miles from the airport for the remainder of the evening before returning the next day.
As is pretty standard across Japan and with Japanese airlines, the boarding process was very orderly. About ten minutes prior to boarding starting the staff at the boarding gate will start lining people up into their appropriate queues to facilitate an orderly embarkation. JL's 787 only has two cabin classes, so the queues were for Business class passengers and elite members and then economy class. At the time I was an elite member in JL's oneworld airline alliance, so I was able to board with the Business class cabin and get to my seat before almost any other passengers in economy.
I was actually initially pretty perplexed by the cabin interior - not because it was rather grey and nondescript, but because I kind of liked how the monotone stripped seats created a sea of grey all around me. The vertical stripes were enough to break up the monotonous nature of it all and the similarly hued, but different enough beige accents within the fabric helped to create a rather serene, calm atmosphere. I was a fan.
My seat for this flight was 23B, a window seat directly behind the bulkhead row separating the business class cabin from the economy cabin. JL's 787 is laid out in a rather spacious 2-4-2 configuration in economy, which gives you slightly more room than other carriers that seem to prefer a 3-3-3 layout on this aircraft. I had been hoping to get the bulkhead row or exit row to allow myself a bit more leg room, but unfortunately I wasn't able to secure either for this flight. On the bright side, I had been given a seat assignment in 22A for my flight back from SIN - the window bulkhead seat.
The seats themselves I found to be pretty comfortable. Each seat had a pillow and blanket placed upon it. I was a little worried the seats would be a bit stiff, either by design or by lack of "wear and tear" due to being so new, however they were very comfortable. The recline of the seat was pretty average though I did feel like I had a bit more lateral space than other economy seats I've flown. As I've mentioned on reviews of other airlines in the past, since I am fairly short (5'7") I am usually much more concerned with the width of the seat than the leg room I am provided. As long as the leg room is average, I find it quite sufficient for my needs, and that's the case here- standard issue leg room, slightly more side-to-side space. Thumbs up on the seat from this guy.
The economy seats feature a metal foot rest for passengers which can be swung out from under the seat in front of you and adjusted to different heights. I used this about half of the flight to rest my feet on something and to keep them moving around a bit. I didn't struggle with using this at all in the limited leg room provided at all, though I highly suspect individuals that are slightly taller than me would find limited use out of this feature due to the difficulty of lifting your knees up that high to place your feet on top of it.
It really did feel like it was built for a Japanese demographic vs. an American or European body style.
One of the most talked about features of the 787 are the windows. Unlike other airplanes, these windows have no shades you pull up and down - you simply use a button underneath to change the amount of tint the window features. So even when the window is fully tinted, the interior of the cabin remains dark (in theory) and the passenger can still see outside. Unfortunately I was not in the window seat for this flight, so I was only able to gaze out from afar.
As with the boarding process, once on the plane the efficiency was quite apparent. Foreign airlines often allow passengers to check one or more bags without any fees, which helps to facilitate a speedy boarding. When each passenger isn't lugging a giant suitcase down the aisle along with their overstuffed backpack, things tend to go a lot more calmly and quickly.
We ended up fully boarded about 15 minutes prior to departure and without further ado we pulled off of the gate and found ourselves jetting down the runway into the skies. Next stop - Singapore!
Once we were in the air the flight attendants turned on the mood lighting, a calming shade of blue that cascaded down from the sides of the fuselage. This is when I noted JL's 787 features individual air vents, which is a nice addition for passenger comfort. Some of the most uncomfortable flights I've ever experienced were ones upon which there was no personal air vent to help regulate personal temperature.
I always feel the most restless on a plane immediately after take off. There's a weird period where nothing is happening but you know at any moment flights attendants are going to appear in the aisle to start the meal service. I don't want to start a movie on the in-flight entertainment system because I hate having to pause it every few minutes as questions are asked or I set up my tray table to take the meal tray. Generally this is the time period where I find myself looking in the seat back pocket for entertainment.
JL's economy class seat back on the 787 features one of my favorite features on a tray table - a flip-down holder for beverages. I'm not morbidly obese but I'm also not frequently mistaken for Natalie Portman, so having the tray table down in a narrow space is one of the less desirable positions I find myself in on the plane (number one being trying to change out of pants on a long haul flight in the tiny bathroom with the baby changing table down while balancing on your shoes trying not to step on any of the myriad puddles of liquid skittering about the floor). The option to pop the cup holder down and free up the remainder of the space is a great feature that has me mentally high-fiving myself when I board a plane and see it winking back at me.
The IFE screen pulled out from the bottom, allowing you to tilt the screen at an angle to accommodate the recline of the seat in front of you or your own recline away from the screen. The seat also featured a USB outlet right next to the screen, making it easy to charge your electronics if you decided to bring your own entertainment.
JL's seatback pockets are stacked pretty well with a variety of items. The standard aircraft safety card is available along with a guide to the IFE - "JAL Mooove!". JL's inflight magazine, "Skyward", features articles in English as well as Japanese. A duty free catalog is provided for your shopping pleasure. One last thing I thought was a nice touch - a permanent drink menu for easy access and perusal.
While a dinner menu is nice, I tend to find the options are limited enough that having a (willing) FA describe them to you is sufficient. Drinks, on the other hand, are usually too numerous for an FA to give you a rundown on in a timely manner, so having something you can reference is more practical. Of course a menu with food and beverage is the most ideal situation of all, but gun to my head between the two, I go beverage.
And as expected, JL's FAs came down the aisle, graceful and quiet as mice. Meal service was about to commence!
The FAs start the service by presenting customers with an "oshibori" - which is just the fancy Japanese way of saying "hot towel". This was followed by a flight attendant handing out little packets of rice crackers to snack upon and offering you a beverage. I selected, as I always do, the exclusive "SkyTime" yuzu citrus fruit juice drink only offered through Japan Airlines.
After snacking on the crackers for a bit, the FAs reappeared offering a choice for dinner today. I was informed I could select a fish dish glazed with soy sauce, or a dish featuring a breaded pork cutlet AND beef. Based on my aforementioned lack of resemblance to Natalie Portman, of course I selected the double meat entree. I also opted for a cold green tea this time around off the beverage cart.
One of the areas where I feel Japan Airlines almost always excels is with catering. The food is always edible, and 95% of the time I find the food is actually pretty delicious as well. That's an EXCELLENT statistic when it comes to airline food. Today's entree was indeed a breaded pork cutlet with a little tonkatsu sauce drizzled over the top sitting on a bed of white rice. The main dish was paired with some steamed vegetables and beef in a sweet sauce with sesame seeds. *brings fingers to lips and makes Italian kissing noise*
Side dishes included some crudites with JL's "Original Dip" (miso-based from what I could tell), some edamame with fish cakes, and a vermicelli noodle salad with shaved boiled egg and shrimp in a light dressing. Dessert was a choice of chocolate or custard pudding mini Haagen-Dazs pints.
Another dining quirk for Japan Airlines I really enjoy is they offer soups as a part of their beverage menu. Consommé is offered consistently on most flights (flavor varies though beef tends to be the most popular I've seen) and miso soup makes an appearance on quite a few flights as well. Only miso was offered on today's flight down to SIN, and I gladly accepted a cup when they made their rounds. It's a nice, rich flavor that works well on a flight, and providing it to customers in a cup makes it much more manageable than a bowl with a spoon.
With dinner solidly behind me and several hours left in our flight, I decided it was time to check out JL's IFE system - would it be different on the 787?
Traditionally one of JL's most glaring weak points as an airline has been with the IFE it provides to customers. The selection is pretty minimal when compared to carriers with similar prestige and scale, and the selections skew rather heavily toward favoring Japanese-language programming. As a Japanese airline, of course they're going to offer programming for their own population. Yet other carriers do a much better job of providing a wider variety of programming that acknowledges the diverse population that often find themselves on flights to and from Asia. Japan Airlines is still very inward facing with it comes to this area, which is in itself quite Japanese.
Unfortunately the content is still pretty atrocious on the 787. The good news is the hardware itself and some of the features inside the IFE are improvements though!
The quality of the screen is much improved over what Japan Airlines typically provides for customers in some of its older aircraft, especially on intra-Asia routes where the 787 sees some significant action. The map program is pretty slick as well, though I cannot say whether this is exclusively on the 787 for JL, if it's on all 787s regardless of carrier, or Japan Airlines is upgrading to this mapping system on all its aircraft.
I'm not that much of an avgeek.
I can tell you there's a lot of options you can play around with on this JL bird's mapping program and if you cannot find enough English-language movies/television shows to keep you occupied, this might be a good alternative.
As a quick insight, here's a few screens of the IFE options and a sample of the movies offered for non-Japanese passengers. Keep in mind, the movie screen is one of three.
I really enjoy Japan Airrlines as a carrier but whenever I know I'm flying with them for anything over an hour I make sure I bring something along I know can keep me entertained without relying on the IFE. A book, a Kindle, an iPad, whatever. It's just always so, so sad to look at that screen and see the void staring back at you while sobbing.
The 787's IFE screen can be navigated by touch, however if you want to go old school or perhaps don't trust the cleaners being paid a pittance to clean the plane between flights are doing a good enough job swabbing up the previous occupant's snot and gunk, you can always use the remote control that's in the arm rest.
Which is also likely to be covered in snot and gunk. So you're screwed either way. Wanna avoid germs? Get off the airplane.
JL's 787 economy cabin is divided into two sections - eight rows of seats in the front and a slightly larger cabin with 11 rows in the back. These sections are divided by a small galley for the FAs to prep beverages and food as well as four lavatories. I decided once my tray was picked up it would be a good time to sneak into the bathrooms to take care of some business before settling in for the long haul to SIN.
As mentioned above, the middle section of the economy cabin has four lavatories. Two along the fuselage of the plane which are larger, and two with reduced space sitting in the middle of the cabin. The doors of the lavs have an interesting pivot mechanism that I've since seen on other airlines but was encountering for the first time on this plane. It made figuring out how to open the door when entering and exiting a little awkward but if you push on it long enough in various places eventually you'll get it to work. Trial and error.
One great thing about flying with most Asian carriers is the FAs work very hard to make sure the bathroom space remains clean. While in the first and business class cabins FAs will often enter the lavatories immediately following a passenger's exit (God bless these brave men and woman ya'll) to tidy up, they are not usually as prompt with the economy lavs. Nevertheless the bathrooms remain, generally speaking, immaculate.
Being a Japanese airline, of course the new 787 had to feature a washlet/bidet for your pooping pleasure. Few things are more exhilirating in life than soaring at 40,000 feet above the ocean while having a piping hot stream of water power wash your booty. Both the flushing mechanism for the toilet and the water faucet were motion activated, though you did still have to touch the faucet if you wanted to adjust the temperature of the water coming out.
Heading back to my seat I saw the FAs were making their way through the cabin offering a tea and coffee service. They had already passed my row but that was fine with me as I didn't really feel like having either at that point. The curtains had been drawn between the business and economy class cabin just one row ahead of my seat as soon as we had reached a safe altitude for the FAs to stand up from their seats, but once I sat down the lights went off in the cabin ahead of us indicating the meal service there had finished and it was nap time for those lucky enough to have the fancy seats on this flight. At some points someone had apparently turned off the mood lighting.
FAs made a sweep through the cabin to pick up any remaining trash from the meal service and then returned to pass out bottles of water.
I really like when airlines give you a bottle of water for the flight. It makes it much easier to stay hydrated without having to find a FA to bring you a small cup or disturb your neighbor if they're asleep and you want to quench your thirst.
With the water passed out, the lights in the economy cabin were finally turned off and the mood lighting was turned back on throughout the plane.
If you're looking at the above pictures you can see my seatmate decided he did not want to lower the tint level on his window at all during the flight. He was playing a Nintendo 3DS the entire time, so I'm not sure why he even needed the light. It didn't bother me a single bit though, as this was a day time flight and I'm also a strong adherent to the rule that if you are sat in the window seat, you get to control what happens with it. Reasonable accommodation for your seatmates of course, but I view the seat holder as the one with authority.
Despite the light and being an afternoon flight I did manage to drift off to sleep for a little while, waking up somewhere off the coast of the Philippines. FAs were regularly making passes through the cabin offering beverages or checking on passengers.
I didn't doze off again after this and decided to pass the time by playing some games on my iPhone and listening to music. About an hour and a half out of landing in SIN the lights came back on inside the cabin and the FAs returned in full force. Despite being a relatively long flight, we were treated to a "cafe" service for the second meal which consisted of beverages and a packaged pastry.
Surprise, surprise - I selected the SkyTime again for my drink. The pastry itself was surprisingly moist for being a packaged item. Raisins provided the majority of the flavor, which was reasonable if a bit underwhelming because I was really ready for a full meal. I really think for a flight this long Japan Airlines could serve a meal prior to landing, though to be honest I don't know what competitors ANA or Singapore Airlines provide on this route - so this may simply be status quo.
Before I knew it we were buckling our seat belts and soaring into SIN over the Singapore Strait, arriving almost 45 minutes earlier than scheduled and providing me with a nice cushion of time before I needed to check-in for my onward flight to Phuket with Jetstar Asia.
As I mentioned at the very beginning of the review, I also flew back from SIN to NRT on JL's 787. I'm going to provide a few additional pictures from that leg of the trip with some truncated commentary to help further flesh out some of the experience on JL's 787 in economy below.
I was seated in the window bulkhead on the return flight, so the experience was indeed marginally different and overall an improvement.
As I had the window seat I was able to play with it a bit, and I have to say I really liked it. The tint effect has a slight delay so if you're someone who has a hard time being patient it can be a bit annoying, but the magical way the window turns from clear to dark was a quirk I can see myself enjoying for years to come. One thing I noticed during the flight when the entire cabin was dimmed (the FAs apparently can control this and don't need individual passengers to "close" the blinds like they do on other planes) was that even though it was dark, it never was as dark as planes get with actual shades. So there's a bit of lighting in the cabin at all times. The 787 may be a plane you want to bring an eye shade along with you on.
The windows themselves on the 787 are bigger than the ones you find on other common varieties of aircraft in the sky today.
The leg room in the bulkhead was more than the row directly behind it that I was seated in for my flight down to SIN, however I would say for anyone who is above 6" tall the increase will likely not be enough to feel spacious. Keep in mind that I'm 5'7" and this is my legs slightly extended. A few extra inches and you're already butting up against the bulkhead. Still - an improvement over non-bulkhead seats. I looked back at the exit row when I visited the lav and the space there is essentially endless. Between the two, tall people really should shoot for the economy exit row with the bulkhead a second choice.
From the bulkhead row you can see right into the business class cabin until the curtains are drawn after take-off. This is of course the much maligned business class seat Japan Airlines had delivered with the 787 that was essentially out of date by the time it arrived. Japan Airlines was an early purchaser of the 787 aircraft, which is nice in theory, however the massive delays on delivery Boeing experienced with this new airframe meant by the time JL received their order the industry standard on business class had moved. Japan Airlines is slowly remedying the issue by installing a new lie-flat seat with all-aisle access on future deliveries and slowly retrofitting some existing aircraft as well.
While my flight down to SIN wasn't exactly filled to the brim, the flight up to NRT was pretty lightly loaded and I ended up without a seatmate. I was able to spread out a bit, which helped me relax and enjoy the experience a bit more. To be honest - even if I had a seat partner, the space would have been more than adequate for a person of my height and belly size. I enjoyed not having a seatmate but I would have been just as happy if someone was next to me. The additional space the bulkhead provided would have made getting up and down a non-issue with a partner.
Having a bit more space allowed me to move around a bit and discover a few new things about the seat and I noticed a few changes that were made to accommodate the fact there is no seatback in front of the bulkhead.
The IFE remote control is on the side of, not on top of, the arm rest.
Headphone jack and USB charging outlet are also along the side of the armrest. The screen for the IFE is folded under the seat and you press the button to release it and raise it up to eye level.
I also was able to discover there are apparently traditional charging outlets between seats as well, so something more heavy duty like a laptop charging cable can be used onboard as well.
The meal service was the same as the flight down from NRT - a beverage service followed by a meal with a light "cafe" service prior to landing. Just as before, the food quality was excellent.
Unlikely my trip from Chicago to SIN, I wasn't overnighting in NRT on the way home. I made my way through the connecting process just in time to get queue up for boarding to begin my flight back to Chicago on American. The very first traces of a sunset started to dim the sky into a brilliant shade of blue, which made for a beautiful departure scene.
So my overall thoughts on JL's 787 in economy?
It's a better ride than many other airlines in economy class.
The advantages of the 787 (lower cabin pressure, higher humidity) create a more comfortable environment, and JL's decision to stick to a 2-4-2 layout provides a better set up for passengers traveling solo or in pairs. The food on Japan Airlines is almost always good, and the service from FAs is impeccable. JL's FAs provide a more formal, less familiar hospitality than some folks may enjoy on other airlines, but I always find the consistency is on point and if you choose to engage with the FAs seeking a less "controlled" presentation, they're happy to oblige you.
The real downside for me is the IFE, a consistently poor offering from Japan Airlines year after year.
I think JL often gets forgotten when it comes to people weighing options across the Pacific. Folks should give it a second look as they offer a solid product and are a fairly large carrier in the region. I'm not really arguing it's the best option out there, but it really holds its own in most areas and provides a comfortable and accessible way to arrive at major cities and some secondary cities in Asia.