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TO THE POINT: Japan Airlines’ “New Spacious Economy” seat is an unbeatable option on flights to Tokyo. The pros: wide, comfortable seats and high-quality JAL service. The cons: every other long-haul economy seat out there isn’t like this one.
TPG Contributor Katie Genter recently flew round-trip from Houston (IAH) to Kuala Lumpur (KUL). Her return from Tokyo’s Narita Airport (NRT) to Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) was on a Japan Airlines 787-8. Read on for her impressions of JAL’s economy-class experience. (All photos are by the author.)
The 787 Dreamliner is one my favorite aircraft, and JAL is quickly becoming one of my favorite airlines after several great flights — including a recent one on the airline’s 777-300ER. As such, I was excited to be flying the approximately 12-hour flight from Tokyo (NRT) to Dallas (DFW) on JAL’s 787-8.
I’d been in the market for a final mileage run to push my EQMs over the threshold to earn AA Executive Platinum status. When I found a round-trip itinerary from Houston (IAH) to Kuala Lumpur (KUL) for just $688, I decided to book it using Citi ThankYou points since I’d just earned 50,000 (bonus is currently 60,000 points after $4,000 spend in the first three months) as a sign-up bonus from my Citi ThankYou Premier Card.
If I had used this card, I would have gotten 1.25 cents per point in value as this itinerary would have cost me 55,040 ThankYou points. However, I boosted the value of these points by getting the Citi Prestige card and booking my flights with American Airlines, which allowed me to redeem my ThankYou points at a rate of 1.6 cents per point. In the end, this itinerary only cost me 42,997 ThankYou points, a much better deal, and I was eligible to earn miles!
After a schedule change allowed me to negotiate an Austin (AUS) departure, I ended up earning 20,898 elite-qualifying miles and 41,786 redeemable miles because of the 100% redeemable miles bonus I’d received as an AAdvantage Platinum member. These redeemable miles are valued at $627 based on TPG’s current valuation of 1.5 cents per AAdvantage mile. Unfortunately, due to the AAdvanage program switching to revenue-based earning, this high yield won’t be available much longer.
Despite calling and obtaining the same JAL record locator from multiple American Airlines agents, I was never able to directly access my reservation or choose seats using JAL’s website. Although I’d tried many time before — including just under 24 hours before my flight — it wasn’t until five hours prior to departure that American Airlines’ website finally routed me to JAL’s website to choose my seats. At this point, the selectable seats contained no aisle seats, which I prefer, so I picked out my seats and decided to arrive at KUL early to inquire about other available seating options.
The JAL check-in counter at KUL — staffed by Malaysia Airlines agents — opened three hours prior to departure. At check-in, I was able to easily obtain a bulkhead aisle seat for my KUL-NRT leg, but wasn’t able to change my seat for the NRT-DFW leg as the plane was ‘very full.’
Connecting in Tokyo
Connecting at Tokyo Narita (NRT) was quick and easy. Transfer security had no wait, but was one of the most thorough non-secondary screenings I’ve experienced — the security agents carefully checked my liquids bag visually and smelled my empty water bottle.
After transfer security, I visited the JAL transfer desk. Although I already had a boarding pass, I was on a mission to obtain an aisle seat. The agent needed to call a supervisor, but was eventually able to assign me seat 47D — a middle section aisle seat near the front of the economy cabin. Based on the differences between ExpertFlyer and the online seat map — and the fact that a supervisor needed to be consulted — it seems that JAL blocks out seats for allocation to particular people at the airport.
My flight was departing from the NRT Terminal 2 satellite terminal, so I decided to visit the JAL Sakura Lounge when it opened at 7:30am.
The JAL Sakura Lounge in the satellite terminal was empty for about 30 minutes after it opened, but then it quickly filled up. In comparison to the Sakura Lounge in the main terminal, this space was smaller, had limited food options and had no day beds or showers. Unless you transit entirely in the satellite terminal and don’t feel like walking — or have a really short layover and just want to grab a quick drink or snack — I’d recommend going to the Sakura Lounge in the main terminal instead, especially since the two lounges are less than a 10-minute walk apart.
I wanted to take a shower before departure, so I walked over to the main terminal Sakura Lounge. I was promptly offered a shower room with a bench, stool, hooks, hangers, blow dryer, various toiletries and a huge shower stall with a bench and three types of shower heads. The Sakura Lounge shower rooms are some of the best lounge showers I’ve experienced so far.
Both my boarding pass and the gate monitors stated that boarding would begin just 20 minutes before departure. I figured this was incorrect, but boarding actually did start then — and we still pushed back on time.
There were four boarding phases: (1) pre-board, (2) business class and Oneworld elites, (3) economy rows 50 and higher and (4) economy rows 49 and lower. Signs were posted to indicate who should queue in which line and once boarding began, agents walked around with signs indicating which phase was currently boarding.
Cabin and Seat
The JAL 787-8 V2 has relatively few seats — just 38 business-class seats, 35 premium economy seats and 88 economy seats. On my flight, the sole economy cabin at the rear of the aircraft was completely occupied except for one open seat. Note that JAL has two versions of the 787-8 — as well as one version of the 787-9 — so be sure to check ExpertFlyer or SeatGuru to see which version you’ll be flying.
The economy cabin was arranged into a 2-4-2 seating configuration. The so-called “New Spacious Economy” seats featured a comfortable width — 18.9 inches of space between armrests — as well as 33-inch pitch. I sat in seat 47D, a middle section aisle seat, and even with a sizable professional football player next to me, we barely touched shoulders or arms during the flight, which certainly wouldn’t be the case in most other economy products.
Upon boarding, each seat contained a plastic-wrapped blanket and a larger-than-average pillow. The blanket was thin but surprisingly warm, while the pillow was held in a real cloth pillow case and was shaped to provide neck support — I ended up using the pillow mainly for lumbar support.
These JAL 787-8 seats were the first JAL seats I’d sat in that don’t promote slouching. My seat was well-padded and comfortable, while the headrest featured wings that could be folded in to support my head while sleeping.
The armrests on the seats were a bit high for me, but I’d rather have them be too high than too low. The tray table was the perfect height for eating and working on my computer and I found I could work comfortably on my 12″ laptop throughout the flight.
There were no entertainment boxes impeding legroom and under-seat storage. Although the seat support bars were narrow, some were awkwardly placed where a passenger might want to extend his or her legs. Despite this, legroom on this JAL 787-8 was about as good as you’ll get in economy.
The seat-back seemed to have a sizable amount of wasted space between the bottom of the IFE screen and the top of the tray table. On the positive side, the seat-back pocket was large enough to fit my 12″ laptop, and there were two little pockets on the outside of this pocket. I found that these three pockets effectively held everything I needed during the flight.
The windows on this Dreamliner were large and very dark, which meant the cabin itself became rather dark when the flight attendants overrode the passengers’ controls to create an artificial night. However, when the passenger settings were not overridden, the window brightness could vary significantly.
The economy restrooms — two shared with premium economy at the front of the cabin as well as one at the rear left of the cabin — featured light flooring and felt pretty modern. There was a make-up mirror built into the mirror and both the toilet and sink were touch-less. One of the bathrooms even featured an electronic bidet — so be careful which buttons you press in the bathroom! Toothbrushes were left on the counter by flight attendants in the bathrooms after meals.
Between the departure and arrival meals, the galley near the economy and premium economy cabins held a Sky Oasis snack basket, self-serve drinks and a self-serve basket with earplugs and eye masks. Drink choices were water, green tea and orange juice while the snack choices were salty potato bits, chocolate cookies, pieces of chocolate and my favorite: cheesy rice crackers.
Then crisp and clear 10.6″ seat-back touch screens ran the MAGIC-VI entertainment system and offered similar content to other JAL flights, featuring more of an international film selection than on most other airlines. There was no remote so everything needed to be done via the touch screen, which functioned as you’d expect and was very responsive.
Over-head headphones could be found in each seat-back pocket — they provided good sound, but were too tall to rest on the top of my head even at their smallest size. Since the entertainment system accepted single-prong headphones, I was able to use my own earbuds with no issues.
There was an entire kids portal as well as various television shows, movies, audio, games and Manga eBooks to choose from. The television shows and movies had relatively limited Western selections, but the audio and games selections were varied enough. Unfortunately, the maps feature was completely broken for everyone on my row and only displayed the error message: “3DMaps has encountered a problem.”
There was Wi-Fi on the flight, priced at $10.15 per hour or $18.80 for 24 hours, and I didn’t end up using it.
Update: We tested JAL’s Wi-Fi performance on another flight. Here are the available plans:
And here’s a speed test from somewhere over Kansas:
This group of flight attendants was polite and efficient. They often walked through the cabin, sometimes toting a tray of drinks, and quickly responded to all call requests that those seated around me made. The FAs seemed surprised — but not annoyed — to find me standing and stretching a few times in the galley between the economy cabin and the premium economy cabin.
This JAL crew was certainly on par with other crew I’ve seen on recent long-haul JAL flights. On this trip, flight attendants were shy at first but opened up quickly when given an opportunity to interact. I was particularly impressed that they’d noted which passengers slept through meals, then saved meals for and offered to serve them once they woke up — I’d never seen this done in economy before.
One interesting note — after pushback, the ground crew lined up parallel to the plane. As the plane pulled away, they bowed, waved goodbye and bowed again. I’d seen this done on my other flights departing Tokyo-Narita but still found it touching.
Food and Beverage
Hot towels were distributed before the departure drink service. A variety of beverages — including juices, soda, coffee, tea, wine, beer, sake and various liquors — were available. Rice crackers were also served.
Passengers were given a choice of a meat entrée or a seafood entrée. Flight attendants showed each passenger a sheet with pictorial and written descriptions of each meal.
I opted for rice with shrimp and vegetables, which came with a cup of miso soup, while the pasta dish was served with a bread roll. The shrimp were surprisingly fresh tasting and the vegetables were well coated with a sauce that made the rice tasty as well.
Both choices of entrée were served with a salad (and an impossible-to-open seasoning packet), a fruit cup, an interesting vegetable salad with pork or chicken and a scoop of a starchy-yet-creamy mixture that had an earthy taste. Based on a little card distributed with the meals, it seems the vegetable salad and starch were “Japan’s soul foods.” Although some passengers might balk at the unfamiliar “soul food,” I found it fun and interesting to try.
Near the end of dinner, all passengers were served mini-Häagen-Dazs ice cream cups of ‘rich milk’ flavor, which generally tasted like a milky version of vanilla ice cream.
A mid-flight snack was served about five hours before we landed, consisting of a large roll that had a glaze on top and tasted cheesy. I thought this roll was actually pretty tasty due to its cheese flavor, but everyone else in my row seemed unwilling to eat more than a bite. Orange juice, coffee and tea were served along with this snack.
More hot towels were distributed before the arrival meal, which consisted of a warm burger and a fruit cup with mango and soft, white fruit. I liked that the burger was served plain — with the fixings on the side — and I really enjoyed the sesame miso sauce. There was even an instruction pamphlet stating how to prepare and eat the burger in an orderly fashion, although most people around me ignored these instructions.
I’ve flown a number of JAL long-haul flights in the past month and have generally enjoyed all of them, aside from the slouch-inducing seats anyway. With more comfortable seats, the JAL 787-8 is hands down the best economy hard product I’ve experienced. The combination of wide, comfortable, high-pitch seats with the better pressurization of the 787 and the consistently high-quality service of JAL makes its 787-8 a winner.
Considering the only other Oneworld nonstop option between NRT and DFW is the American Airlines 777-200, the JAL 787-8 is a hands-down winner for Oneworld passengers needing to fly this route in economy.
Have you flown in economy on a JAL 787-8 recently? If so, how did your experience stack up against mine?
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