Japan Airlines (JL) has a very special place in my heart. Growing up as a child just outside of Tokyo, Japan Airlines (and to some extent their rival ANA) was frequently featured in commercials, billboards, and in the skies above me on a daily basis. While many oneworld devotees try to steer their business toward Cathay Pacific when moving through Asia, I often find myself aiming for a connecting at Tokyo Narita (NRT) instead. There’s just something about the white planes with that beautiful, classic red tsurumaru livery that makes me smile and excited to fly.
So it’s no surprise that on a recent trip to Asia I went out of my way to pick an itinerary that placed me on a Japan Airlines flight from NRT to Hong Kong (HKG). While my status as an American Airlines Executive Platinum allows me a great deal of opportunity to upgrade when flying on AA planes, those benefits currently do not extend when one is flying on a partner airline. While being relegated to the back of the bus on a US-based airline is never that thrilling of an experience, Asian carriers tend to provide a slightly better product for their economy cabins, and I was looking forward to experience the service Japan Airlines would offer on this flight.
Boarding on Japan Airlines is always a rather organized affair. The gate typically has signs for each cabin/elite status tier and the Japanese, being a notoriously orderly bunch, sort themselves neatly into lines for their designated boarding group. Gate agents make their way down the lines and check the boarding pass and passport for each passenger to confirm they are in the right location. It’s all so civilized and calm compared to the full-contact sport that has become boarding a flight in the US.
Soon enough boarding commenced with business class passengers and oneworld Emerald members being invited to head down the jet bridge first. As an AA Executive Platinum I was part of this first contingent on the plane and was able to locate my seat and store my baggage without any hassle or stress.
This flight was being operated by one of JL’s 767s, featuring 30 recliner-style business class and 207 economy seats. I was assigned a bulkhead aisle seat directly behind the business class cabin, which was 15C. I have to admit that as I lowered myself into the seat, I was a bit concerned. I had previously flown with Japan Airlines from NRT to Bangkok on one of their recently retired 747s in an exit row seat, and was not so pleased that experience. While I’m not the fattest of fatties, I’m also not the thinnest of guys either, so the reduced seat width created by the tray tables being built into the arm rests of JL’s exit and bulkhead rows really was not my cup of tea. In fact, I’d describe my previous experience on the NRT-BKK flight as torture. So tortuous that all my flights with Japan Airlines since have seen me request standard economy seating.
For some reason on this flight I was pre-assigned 15C and by the time I got to NRT to ask for a change, there was nothing left but middle seats. And believe it or not, I actually considered taking one of those middle seats. That’s how much I dreaded the reduced width bulkhead/exit row on Japan Airlines. I figured I could give it another shot though. And I’m glad I did.
This time around, my large American frame fit fairly comfortably in to the seat. Perhaps a bit snug for my personal taste, but nothing I couldn’t live with for a few hours. Oddly enough, I’ve gained weight since that dreadful NRT-BKK flight, so I’m certainly it wasn’t something on my end that had changed.
Boarding was completed fairly quickly, and it was soon apparent that I was seated in the midst of a group of traveling American business men. They wasted no time taking their shoes off and “letting the dogs bark” after their lengthy trans-Pacific flight. Needless to say, the aroma around our seats wasn’t the most pleasant. JL’s flight attendants (FA) welcomed us aboard with their customary bow, and proceeded to ensure we were all safely buckled into our seats while touching each individual overhead bin to confirm they were correctly shut.
The captain welcomed us aboard and indicated we’d be arriving almost exactly on schedule, and soon enough we were jetting off toward HKG.
Japan Airlines provided a meal for this flight, though sadly there didn’t seem to be a choice for passengers to select from. I was simply asked if I wanted to dine, and when I confirmed I would, a tray was placed on my table. The meal was presented in a bento box-style, with a paper sheet attached to the top explaining what each dish contained. I liked this approach, since it made the dish more approached to non-Japanese customers.
The meal itself was one of the better economy options I’ve had in the last year or two. The fish was flavorful though a bit pungent (or maybe that was all the deeply marinated American foot odor from my seating area?), and the side dishes offered a nice variety to keep your mind entertained and your stomach satisfied.
The meal came with a hot soup, rice crackers, and a Haagen Daaz ice cream for dessert. For my beverage, I selected JAL SkyTime, which is a yuzu (citrus) flavored drink. I’m a Sky Time fanatic, and it’s pretty much the ONLY beverage I order when I’m on a Japan Airlines flight other than green tea.
The quality of service by the FAs was, as expected, excellent. While JL’s FAs are often not as fluent in English as their oneworld counterparts at Cathay Pacific, the service is still very polite and warm. Some also critique Asian carriers for having FAs that are a bit too formal and robotic, and I can certainly see where one might come away with that impression from JL’s FAs. Whereas some might see robotic service and a cold exterior, I come away seeing precise attention to detail and a formal respect for the customer. JL’s FAs do smile, laugh, and engage with passengers. They just refrain from dropping into an area that some might consider a bit too casual. It’s a level of service I enjoy and appreciate.
The hard product was a bit antiquated compared to the equipment I’ve seen Cathay Pacific use on this route. JL’s in-flight entertainment (IFE) offerings are simply not at the same level as CX. The MAGIC IFE system Japan Airlines uses offered very little variety, while on CX I’m often faced with more choices than I have time to watch during the scheduled flight time. Japan Airlines also stacks the deck fairly heavily in favor of Japanese language programming (not surprising for a Japanese carrier, eh?), whereas another international carrier might provide a wider selection of English language programming. The seat itself was comfortable and as mentioned previously only slightly reduced with regards to width. Certainly comparable to AA or CX in terms of economy cabin comfort.
The remainder of the flight passed without incident. FAs constantly cruised the aisles offering hot tea and water. The ride to HKG was surprisingly smooth. Typically my flights out of NRT into the rest of Asia are met with at least some periods of mild turbulence, but this trip was free of bumps. Overall, Japan Airlines provides a consistent product that left me satisfied with my flight. Service from the staff was impressive, though upgrades to the IFE would be needed to really make it equivalent to CX’s flights on the same route.