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On his way back from a three-month study abroad adventure in China, TPG Contributor Michael Spelfogel tested out JAL’s new Sky Suite 787 onboard the Dreamliner, which he booked with 60,000 American AAdvantage miles. Read on for his impressions. (All photos are by the author).
Nonstop routes between Asia and New York have some of the most coveted seats in premium cabins, especially for those looking to redeem frequent flyer miles. I was up to the challenge of finding the perfect award redemption and I knew this trip presented a great opportunity to try out some of the best business and first class seats in the industry.
I was intent on seeing Japan for the first time before coming home from my three-month study abroad program in China, so I explored all the available options. Until about 48 hours prior to departure, I was set on using my Korean Air award ticket — which I paid 62,500 Skypass miles for by transferring from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account at a 1:1 ratio — however, those flight times were pretty inconvenient and I would have had to spend the night in Seoul. Korean Air does allows you to redeposit miles for free at any time and use them later on, so if I found availability on a nonstop flight, I could always cancel the original ticket and not lose any money or miles in the process.
The day before my scheduled departure date, the last seat in JAL’s 787 business class opened up with award availability on a nonstop flight from Tokyo (NRT) to New York (JFK). I had been monitoring availability through the British Airways website and once I saw the space, I immediately called American AAdvantage at 1-800-882-8880 to book since JAL and Cathay Pacific redemptions must be made over the phone.
After just five minutes on the phone, I had redeemed 60,000 American AAdvantage miles and paid about $40 in taxes for my ticket from Tokyo to New York. The agent gave me my JAL confirmation number and since it was the night before my trip, I was able to complete online check-in and get my boarding pass immediately.
I was excited to fly in JAL’s Sky Suite in business class, which TPG Editor in Chief Zach Honig first reviewed last year on the 777-300ER, since the airline is known for having such a great hard product.
Airport and Lounge
The train trip from Tokyo Station to Narita Airport Terminal 2, where all the Oneworld flights leave from, took just over 50 minutes — trains depart twice an hour from the downtown area and drop you right at the entrance to the terminal. Upon arrival at the airport, I took advantage of the dedicated premium class check-in counter and security lines.
Both the check-in and security sections had no line, and within 10 minutes of getting off the train, my bags were checked and I had cleared security and border control.
Terminal 2 has several premium lounge options available for Oneworld passengers — JAL, American Airlines and Cathay Pacific all have lounges in the main terminal building, while Qantas and JAL each have lounges in the satellite terminal. Additionally, there are two priority pass lounges in Terminal 2, which Citi Prestige and Amex Platinum card members can access.
Since I had some extra time, I was able to visit all three Oneworld lounges in the main section of Terminal 2. First, I went to JAL’s Sakura Lounge, located just to the right after you clear security.
The Sakura Lounge has a separate section for first- and business-class customers. Since I’m not a Oneworld Emerald member, I could only access the business-class portion.
Overall, the Sakura Lounge was beautiful, modern, very large and offered great views of the tarmac.
There were nap rooms, which you can reserve, as well as shower facilities and lockers to store your luggage in.
This lounge was pretty great overall, however there were two major drawbacks that I experienced: overcrowding (the lounge was fairly full when I visited) and lack of food selection.
The JAL lounge had a beautiful upstairs dining area with buffet counters and seating areas, but the buffet itself was noticeably sparse. There were a few pot stickers and dumplings, but little else.
Nonetheless, it did not feel like there was the same level of special attention here that I’d experienced at other top class lounges. The food selection was also pretty disappointing, especially considering that my flight was right before dinnertime.
I still had some time to kill so I decided to check out the other Oneworld lounges, starting with the Cathay Pacific First and Business Class Lounge.
Despite its small size, this lounge had a better food and drink selection than what I’d seen at the Sakura Lounge, albeit by a small margin.
While this lounge was smaller and didn’t have good views of the tarmac, it did offer a small sushi selection and a freezer filled with Häagen-Dazs ice cream.
The last lounge I visited was the American Airlines Admirals Club, located downstairs below the concourse.
This lounge was fairly large — although not quite as large as the JAL Sakura Lounge — and there were nice views of the tarmac and a good buffet selection as well as a bar area stocked with drinks and snacks.
The space felt more relaxed than the JAL lounge, but I have a feeling this differs depending on American Airlines’ departure times — a flight to Chicago had just left right before I arrived so the Admirals Club was nice and quiet.
Overall the JAL lounge was definitely the best of the three, but if you are looking for a quieter space or a better food selection, try either the Admirals Lounge or Cathay Pacific Lounge.
I was concerned at first because the boarding time listed on my boarding pass was just 20 minutes prior to our departure. Given that US airlines generally board planes about an hour before departure, I assumed my flight was destined to be delayed. However, JAL staff boarded the plane exactly as advertised and everything went according to plan.
By our departure time, the plane was full and the jet way had been detached from the aircraft. JAL was operating a 787-8 aircraft for our 13-hour flight — the carrier’s 777-300ER is used for its other daily flight to New York.
Cabin and Seat
This version of JAL’s 787 featured 38 Sky Suites in business class arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration. The window seats (A and K) have a partition that offers a crazy amount of privacy for a business-class seat, almost feeling like its own enclosed cabin, a perk that’s usually reserved for specialty first-class flights. The seats are 25.5 inches wide and offer 74 inches of pitch.
The windows were also larger and every row except the third had three windows.
An amenity kit, blanket and pillow were waiting for me at my seat, 3A.
The plane also featured a Premium Economy section, arranged in 2-3-2 layout. Its 35 seats are 19.2 inches wide with 42 inches of pitch.
The economy section is in a 2-4-2 configuration, with only eight seats across, unlike other airlines that typically squeeze nine seats across on the Dreamliner — the 88 seats in economy are 18.9 inches wide with 33 inches of pitch.
Back in business, the Sky Suite seats recline 180 degrees into a fully-flat bed, making for a wonderful 13-hour long-haul flight.
JAL also gives Sky Suite passengers a mattress pad and a light duvet to set up for sleeping.
My seat had its own USB port and AC power outlet, as well as a massive 23-inch IFE screen. Aside from changing channels, you could also order food and drinks directly from the remote control, which was pretty convenient.
After putting the partition up, my Sky Suite felt completely private. I wasn’t even able to see passengers walking down the aisle when my seat was reclined.
There are two bathrooms available for premium cabin passengers, each of which included a Japanese-style toilet. There was also a small display area with drinks and snacks for our use between rows 3 and 5 of business class.
JAL gives each business-class passenger an amenity kit with a toothbrush, tissues, lip balm, eyeshades, ear plugs, slippers and other essentials inside — hand cream was provided by the Institut Karité in Paris.
While I thought the amenity kit was smaller than what’s normally offered on an international business-class flight, JAL’s bedding options more than made up for it. JAL has a pillow, light duvet and mattress topper for your bed when you’re ready to sleep. The flight attendants will quickly make your bed — and it really is comfortable.
I asked the flight attendant to make my bed just after they dimmed the lights following the first meal service. With my bed ready and my appetite content, I was able to sleep for several hours undisturbed.
JAL has very large 23-inch TV screens at the front of every Sky Suite — there’s a remote close to the seat and you can use its touch screen interface to operate your TV, even when you are fully reclined. There was a fairly large selection of US and Japanese movies and TV shows available to check out.
Wi-Fi will cost you $18.80 for the entire 13-hour flight and I found the speed to be incredibly fast. In fact, the Wi-Fi was so good that I was able to stream my favorite shows on Netflix and use Google Hangout to make an audio call to my parents from the plane.
Food and Beverage
JAL served Champagne and orange juice shortly after boarding and the flight attendants brought hot towels after collecting the drinks. Following takeoff, we were given a menu that offered two primary options for dinner: Japanese-style or Western-style. I loved my meals in Tokyo so I opted for Japanese-style and was not disappointed. I was first brought a small appetizer that consisted of tofu and a seaweed salad.
JAL also had a pretty extensive beverage menu with three white wines and three red wines to choose from in addition to a number of Japanese and Western liquors and other cocktails. Next, I was served a bento box meal that featured an assortment of dishes.
I then received a third course with fish and miso soup.
Last, I was given a piece of interesting, sweet cake that I’m still having trouble describing. The menu, however, said it was “soft adzuki bean jelly cake.” It was tasty and I finished it very quickly.
After dinner, I managed to get some rest but was asked if I wanted any food or drinks almost every hour by the cabin crew. Two hours before landing, I ordered a beef pastrami sandwich and assorted cheeses off the “Anytime You Wish” menu. The sandwich was very flavorful but a bit on the small side.
The food onboard was pretty good, but not earth shattering by any means. However, the service and attention to detail were excellent in comparison to other business-class experiences I’ve had on international flights. I must have been asked once an hour or more if I needed a drink or snack.
Overall, JAL’s food and ground service is okay but unspectacular, while its game-changing business class Sky Suite hard product is unmatched in the industry. Remember to check for JAL’s award availability on British Airways’ site before your next trip to Asia. I hope your Sky Suite experience is as pleasant as mine was!
Have you flown in JAL’s business class Sky Suite? Tell us about it, below.
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