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Review: JAL 777-300ER Economy — Tokyo to Chicago

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TPG Contributor Katie Genter recently flew an open-jaw itinerary from Austin (AUS) to Kuala Lumpur (KUL) with a return trip from Jakarta (CGK). Her return from Tokyo’s Narita Airport (NRT) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD) was on a Japan Airlines 777-300ER. Read on for her impressions of JAL’s economy-class experience. (All photos are by the author.)

Although JAL didn’t make TPG’s list of the top airlines to fly international economy, I’d heard good things about JAL’s economy class — especially the spacious seating on the 777-300ER — and was excited to check it out for myself.

Booking

I needed to attend a conference in May in Singapore (SIN). When I found an open-jaw economy itinerary from Austin (AUS) to Kuala Lumpur (KUL) that returned from Soekarno–Hatta International in Jakarta (CGK) for just $803 round-trip, I booked it knowing there’d be cheaper flights to and from Singapore available on other low-cost carriers.

On this round-trip flight, I ended up earning 21,069 elite-qualifying miles and 42,138 redeemable miles — due to the 100% redeemable miles bonus I’d received as an AAdvantage Platinum member. Unfortunately, this high yield won’t be available much longer. These redeemable miles are valued at $632 under TPG’s current valuation of 1.5 cents per AAdvantage mile.

My round-trip earned 21,069 elite-qualifying miles and 42,138 redeemable miles with a fare of just $803.
My round-trip earned 21,069 elite-qualifying miles and 42,138 redeemable miles with a fare of just $803.

I used my Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express for the purchase. I’d already selected gas as my 3x bonus category, but I still earned 2x Membership Rewards points per dollar spent. The $803 airfare netted me 1,606 Membership Rewards points and satisfied 16% of the $5,000 minimum spend I needed to earn the sign-up bonus.

Check-In and Connection

American Airlines’ website automatically redirected me to JAL’s site when I attempted to check-in. JAL’s website allowed check-in and web-based seat selection from 72 hours to 1 hour prior to departure, however, the website was frequently overwhelmed with traffic as I received an error message that “too many users are accessing our site” on multiple occasions. After completing online check-in, I was still able to alter my seat selection on JAL’s website.

I took one of the last middle-section aisle seats when I checked-in online.
I opted for one of the last middle-section aisle seats when I checked-in online.

Since my flight from Tokyo (NRT) to Chicago (ORD) was the second flight of three on my return itinerary to Austin (AUS), I dropped my bags and received my physical boarding passes at Soekarno–Hatta International in Jakarta (CGK). The airport experience at CGK was a bit different than most US-based fliers are used to — you had to show an e-ticket to security staff at the terminal door before even being allowed to enter the airport and approach the check-in desk.

Oneworld Sapphires can use the First Class check-in at CGK.
Oneworld Sapphires can use the first-class check-in at CGK.

My JAL 777-300ER from CGK to NRT landed at the NRT Terminal 2 satellite terminal. My flight to ORD was departing from the Terminal 2 main terminal, so I needed to clear transfer security then walk across the bridge between the satellite terminal and the main terminal.

The connector between the main terminal and the satellite terminal at NRT Terminal 2 contained some nice sleep/relax areas for those without lounge access.
The connector between the main terminal and the satellite terminal at NRT Terminal 2 contained some nice rest areas for those without lounge access.

Lounge

JAL’s Sakura Lounge was printed on my boarding card, so I experienced no issues accessing the lounge as a Oneworld Sapphire. The Sakura Lounge in the main terminal was extremely spacious. There were many different types of seating available, including bar stools, lounge chairs, day rooms, couches and tables.

The Sakura lounge features many work and seating areas with views of the tarmac.
The Sakura lounge featured many work and seating areas offering views of the tarmac.

I made my way to the ‘Relaxation Area’ for a shower. I noticed that they offer 10-minute complimentary massage services, but I didn’t partake this time. Upon asking, I was assigned a shower room that was well equipped with a bench, stool, hooks, hangers and a huge shower stall with a bench and three types of shower heads. In terms of amenities, the room contained soap, shampoo, conditioner, a blow dryer, a comb, a cotton swab and a shower cap. I enjoyed a great shower and have no complaints about the shower room whatsoever.

The shower rooms were well equipped and provided a nice shower experience.
The shower rooms were well equipped and provided a nice shower experience.

After showering, I walked upstairs to the dining room — appropriately named because it had the food buffet and you’re requested to eat your meal in this area. There weren’t too many Western choices outside of hash browns, scrambled eggs and sausage, but I enjoyed some great miso soup.

The dining room featured a self-serve miso soup bar.
The dining room featured a self-serve miso soup bar.

Both in the dining area and in the other parts of the lounge, there were a variety of self-serve drinks ranging from wine to beer on tap to liquor to soda to juice to coffee. There were also some light snacks — like crackers and cookies — available outside the dining room.

The wine was self-serve and nicely labeled.
The wine was self-serve and nicely labeled.

Boarding

Despite moderate but constant rain at NRT, boarding began right on schedule. There were four boarding phases: (1) Pre-board, (2) first class, business class and Oneworld elites, (3) rows 50 and back and (4) rows 49 and forward. As a Oneworld Sapphire, I was able to board during the second phase. Announcements were made in the gate area regarding the current boarding phase, while a gate agent held up a sign indicating the same info.

The gate was well-staffed but calm shortly before boarding was scheduled to begin.
The gate was well staffed and calm shortly before boarding was scheduled to begin.

I was greeted as I boarded the aircraft, but was given no direction regarding which aisle to walk down. I knew where my seat was, but I can imagine many people don’t know which aisle to go down based on their seat letter. Hopefully the JAL flight attendants just assumed elites knew where to go.

Cabin and Seats

My first thoughts upon walking into the economy cabin were that it looked spacious and classy. The 3-3-3-configured JAL 777-300ER economy cabin is indeed spacious and features so-called Sky Wider seats with an impressive 18.5″ width and 34″ pitch. And this increased width and pitch is noticeable! I found I rarely touched elbows or shoulders with my neighbor and I could type comfortably with my 14″ laptop on the tray table even with the seat ahead of me reclined.

The economy cabin looked spacious and comfortable.
The economy cabin looked spacious and comfortable.

The Sky Wider economy seats are very well designed. In addition to being designed to create 3.9″ more leg room — a fact I learned browsing through the in-seat materials — they also feature a coat hook, three pockets, a shelf and the traditional main seat-back pocket, which was stuffed with various informational material (all of the other pockets were useful though). I found it somewhat annoying that I couldn’t fit my laptop in the seat-back pocket — but that’s a small complaint.

Neither the entertainment boxes nor the seat supports impeded legroom.
Neither the in-flight entertainment boxes nor the seat supports impeded legroom.

I chose seat 54D on this flight because it was one of the few middle-section aisle seats open when I switched my seat from a window seat 72 hours before departure. Besides being a middle-section aisle — my new favorite choice of seat when traveling alone in a 3-3-3 configured cabin — there was nothing noteworthy about this particular seat.

The armrests on the seats are positioned at a reasonable height, but the seats are designed such that slouching is easy to do. I’d actively try to remain upright, but would eventually find myself sliding down in the seat. Based upon looking around the cabin, others seemed to be having the same problem.

54D was a normal middle-section aisle seat. The pitch and width made the flight very comfortable.
54D was a normal middle-section aisle seat. The pitch and width made the flight very comfortable.

Tray tables on planes are usually noticeably sticky or dirty. I was surprised to find that the tray tables on this flight seemed to have been cleaned before the flight — every tray table I saw at least looked clean. Speaking of the tray tables, I found mine to be a comfortable height for eating, writing and laptop use. My only complaint would be that with the sizable seat pitch, the tray table should extend further toward the passenger to make eating easier.

The tray tables looked as if they'd been cleaned immediately before this flight.
The tray tables looked as if they’d been cleaned immediately before this flight.

Despite the cabin being darkened about an hour after dinner, there was no request for people to shut their window shades. As most of the cabin opted to sleep, the majority of the shades were closed, but there were still a few open windows spilling bright light into the cabin.

The bathrooms in the economy cabin were generally clean, but I found that the sinks gave frustratingly little water.

Toothbrushes were placed on trays in the bathrooms shortly after the departure meal — but they disappeared quickly!
Toothbrushes were placed on trays in the bathrooms shortly after the departure meal — but they disappeared quickly!

Amenities

Each seat featured a packaged blanket, pillow and packaged headphones. The blanket was surprisingly warm and soft — but substantially too narrow to wrap around yourself if you wanted to cover both your arms and legs. The pillow was larger than a normal economy pillow and featured a real cloth pillow case. It seemed contoured to support your neck — and I saw others using it this way — but I preferred to use it as a normal pillow.

A pillow and blanket awaited passengers on each seat.
A pillow and blanket awaited passengers on each seat.

In-Flight Entertainment

The seat-back entertainment system featured JAL’s MAGIC-V system. The screens were large, bright, crisp and easy to tilt. There were plenty of entertainment options including movies, games, TV shows, audio and an interactive flight map. This system did seem to feature more international — and less Western — movies, TV shows and audio than are commonly found on international flights.

The MAGIC-V entertainment system was bright and provided adequate entertainment options.
The MAGIC-V entertainment system was bright and provided adequate entertainment options.

In addition to the normal features, there was an “Inflight Manner” section that detailed how to be a good passenger. Although most of us know not to let items fall onto people when opening the overhead bins and to look back before reclining to ensure a laptop isn’t in the way, this video provided humorous reminders. There was also an “Inflight Exercise” video that looked ridiculous but provided some good stretches.

The "Inflight Manner" video provided comical reminders to be polite.
The “Inflight Manner” video provided comical reminders to be polite.

Each seat featured a USB outlet next to the seat-back screen and a universal power outlet under the seat. Headphones were waiting in the seat-back pocket of each seat. Although I found the sound quality with the provided headphones to be pretty good, it was bothersome that the headphones wouldn’t rest on the top of my head even at their smallest setting. When I tried to use my own headphones (without a two-to-one adapter) I only got sound in my left ear.

The provided headphones provided good sound, but were way too big even at their smallest setting.
The provided headphones provided good sound, but were way too big even at their smallest setting.

Service

All of the JAL ground and flight staff I interacted with were polite and welcoming — high-quality customer service seemed to be a big focus for all staff members.

The check-in desk agent at CGK was very efficient and polite during the check-in process. She provided me all of the expected documents and directed me toward immigration and the lounge. The workers at the NRT Sakura Lounge were all attentive, friendly and polite — empty drinks and plates were removed promptly and I was greeted many times as I walked around. The gate agents in NRT were pleasant as they welcomed me to board.

Similarly, the flight attendants were welcoming and friendly throughout the entire flight. Each crew member seemed happy to be working on this JAL flight. Most of the flight attendants came across as friendly to each other — evidenced by laugher in the galley and during meal services. The food and beverage services did tend to take longer than I’m accustomed to, but this is likely because drinks and meals were being served with politeness and patience.

The flight attendants were friendly and careful when distributing meals and drinks.
The flight attendants were friendly and careful when distributing meals and drinks.

Food and Beverage

The economy dining schedule was announced shortly after take-off. The announcement gave the choices for dinner — “Japanese pork” or “Western chicken” — and stated that there’d be a mid-flight snack and drink service as well as a pre-landing breakfast. Additionally, the crew announced that snacks and drinks would be available in the middle and rear galley throughout the flight.

Flight attendants distributed warm cloths to all passengers shortly after takeoff and promptly began the snack and beverage service. The snack was rice crackers, and the beverages consisted of wine, beer, sake, plum wine, several liquors, soda, juice, coffee or tea.

A choice of drinks — alcoholic and non-alcoholic — were offered before dinner.
A choice of drinks — alcoholic and non-alcoholic — were offered before dinner.

When dinner was served, each passenger was shown a picture card with the dinner options — pork with rice or chicken with pasta. I opted for the chicken and pasta, which came in a creamy sauce with a few carrots. Although bland, the chicken was good quality white meat, the sauce wasn’t too heavy and the pasta wasn’t overcooked.

Both meal choices came with a carrot, green bean, pickled corn and lettuce salad; a fruit cup with diced apples, oranges and a kiwi slice; and metal cutlery. The meals also came with a spicy yet sweet slaw and a crisp root-like vegetable that had a sweet, earthy flavor. Apparently only the pork and rice meals came with a pre-packaged roll. I saw other passengers being given rolls, but when I inquired, I was told my meal didn’t come with bread.

The chicken and pasta dinner came with a nice, fresh salad.
The chicken and pasta dinner came with a fresh salad.

Both of my seatmates ordered special meals which — due to the slow, but intentional, meal service — arrived 35 minutes before mine. They seemed happy with their meals until they realized they didn’t get any of the Häagen-Dazs Cookies and Cream ice cream, which was served to the rest of the cabin during dinner. They asked the flight attendant if they could have some ice cream, but she said no because their special meals already came with a dessert and there were no extra ice cream cups.

Partway through dinner, ice cream and a choice of tea or coffee were served.
Partway through dinner, ice cream and a choice of tea or coffee were served.

When I visited the rear galley in the middle of the night, I found a box of snacks including savory cheese rice crackers, pieces of chocolate, chocolate cookies, rice crackers and salty potato snacks as well as apple juice and orange juice with cups. Although the galley curtains were closed, a flight attendant seemed to be monitoring the snack levels — when I returned later, the box of snacks had been refilled.

The self-serve "Sky Oasis" was set up in the galleys between dinner and the pre-landing meal.
The self-serve “Sky Oasis” was set up in the galleys between dinner and the pre-landing meal.

The mid-flight snack — a meat-filled bun — was served 4.5 hours before landing. The bun smelled unappetizing, but luckily it tasted better than it smelled. That said, I’d likely not choose to eat it again.

The mid-flight snack consisted of a choice of juice or tea and a meat bun.
The mid-flight snack consisted of a choice of juice or tea and a meat-filled bun.

Two hours before landing, the cabin was brightened, hot towels were distributed and the pre-landing breakfast meal was served. Again, my seatmates received special meals and were done eating by the time my meal arrived.

For those without special meals, breakfast consisted of a grapefruit and orange plate, basil sauce pasta, a roll with chicken and tomato stew. A brochure came with the meal advertising the “Soup Stock Tokyo” restaurant it came from and describing how to best eat the meal. This meal — although not a normal Western breakfast — was surprisingly tasty and provided some welcome warmth.

The pre-landing meal — soup from Tokyo chain "Soup Stock Tokyo" — was a unique yet interesting meal.
The pre-landing meal — soup from Tokyo chain “Soup Stock Tokyo” — was a unique yet tasty meal.

Overall Impression

JAL’s 777-300ER is one of the most comfortable international economy classes I’ve ever flown in. To complement this, the service on this flight was spot on and the food served — with the exception of the mid-flight meat-filled roll — was well cooked, interesting and tasty.

Even with a close to capacity economy cabin, this JAL flight was comfortable and the service was good.
Even with a close-to-capacity economy cabin, this JAL flight was comfortable and the service was good.

The largest improvements that could be made on this flight would be to keep the cabin warmer between meals and to design seats that don’t promote slouching. Overall though, I was very pleased with JAL’s 777-300ER economy-class product.

Have you flown in economy on JAL’s 777-300ER recently? How did your experience compare to mine?

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