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After 11 hours in economy on a flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo Narita (NRT) on ANA, I was glad to have a couple hours to relax before my next long flight to Singapore. I was even more glad that though I’d only paid for an economy fare, I somehow had secured myself a seat in premium economy. Same airline, same Boeing 777-300ER, but I would have at least 4 inches of extra legroom, more recline and better service. I was keen to find out how this would feel.

There were lots of ANA aircraft at
Unsurprisingly, there were lots of ANA aircraft at one of its main hubs.

Booking and Check-In

This was the second leg on an open-jaw ticket from my home in Los Angeles to Singapore, returning from Kuala Lumpur. I was able to book the journey on Star Alliance carriers for $543. Instead of putting the ticket on a credit card — such as the American Express Platinum, which gives you 5x points for airfare purchases — I chose to use 36,190 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, as I was flush from a recent 80,000-point bonus from my Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card. This also allowed me to earn Elite Qualifying Miles (though not dollars) on United.

Before my LAX-NRT leg left Los Angeles, I checked the flight information on ANA’s website and noticed that a seat was available in premium economy. When I selected the seat, I was expecting to see a surcharge, but there was no additional fee; indeed, when I printed my boarding pass, my new upgraded seat was confirmed. I don’t know why, as ANA charges hundreds of dollars more for premium economy and I don’t have elite status on the airline. Still, I wasn’t complaining. Sometimes you catch a break.

I had checked in online in Los Angeles and I didn’t have to do anything else once I passed through security at the transfer point in Tokyo.

The ANA Boeing 777 prepared for our flight as the sun set over Tokyo.

Airport and Boarding

Tokyo Narita offered me free lounge access in two locations: the United Club (courtesy of a pass from my United MileagePlus Explorer Card) and the Korean Air Lounge (free admission with my Priority Pass membership, courtesy of the Platinum Card from American Express). Neither was great, especially considering how hungry I was for a hot meal, but I was able to cobble together enough snacks, and the free Wi-Fi helped pass the time.

I arrived at the gate at 5:30pm for the 6:05pm flight, and there was already a significant line. Nearly every seat at the gate was occupied, including the coin-operated massage chairs, and several passengers were on the floor, getting power from the wall outlets. Though the waiting area was open to the main thoroughfare of the terminal, it felt stuffy; the low ceilings didn’t help. The airport offered Wi-Fi, but I was unable to connect on my phone.

Boarding Line at Gate
The line for economy mixed with premium economy and bled into the hallway.

Boarding groups were divided into first, business and economy, and by 5:40pm, the economy line spilled out of the gate area and into the hall as the cabins began boarding. There was no special boarding for premium economy. By 5:45pm, economy boarding was underway. Passage to the plane was mostly smooth, though for some reason my barcode didn’t scan and I had to step aside and wait for a couple minutes for the gate agents to look me up on the computer.

As with my previous flight, my roll-aboard bag, which never gives me trouble, got stuck in the narrow aisle. The overhead bins were much more spacious than economy, but the space under the seat in front of me was oddly spaced (divided into five sections for four passengers) and barely fit my backpack. I had to share the larger space with the passenger next to me, making for awkward unintentional mid-flight footsie.

Seats and Amenities

Premium economy was only three rows, in a 2-4-2 configuration, compared to 3-4-3 for most of economy. The seats were significantly upgraded from economy for the 24 passengers, in both size (19.3 inches wide with 38 inches of pitch) and amenities (leg rests, adjustable reading lights and cocktail trays).

4-across in Premium Economy
Four seats in the center section of premium economy.

I felt the difference right away, and was glad to have a roomier seat. It was easy to cross my legs without significant readjustment and without sticking my feet where they shouldn’t have been. The seat also had significant recline, even though I was in the back row of the cabin.

The leg rest didn
The leg rest didn’t help me, nor did the narrow space for my backpack. The footrest did get some use.

The leg rest had its own button and proved not to be comfortable for a man of my height (5’11”). The shorter passengers in my aisle seemed to love it. The footrest was more useful.

The armrest was a hard console that would have prevented me from lying down if the seats next to me had been empty. It also contained a heavy and clumsy tray table, which more than once required a flight attendant to fully stow.

On the windows, seats were 2-across. Beware the reading lights.

The reading light seemed like a nice addition at first, but was a real pain. Dangling from a thick cable, it was difficult to adjust and aim, and the arm frequently got in the way when I was trying to sleep.

Right to left: USB and camera inputs, adjustable LCD screen, coat hook I

The LCD screens were 10.6 inches and adjustable. The USB and in-seat plugs provided power. Unlike my previous flight in economy, the IFE remote was nested in the armrest, which I wasn’t a fan of.

The slippers are yours to keep!

Premium economy passengers received chintzy slippers and headphones in addition to their pillows and blankets.

Just after 6pm came the announcement of the doors closing, and the air conditioning mercifully kicked in, as the cabin was even stuffier than the gate. A flight attendant came by to offer a tray with face masks — the kind often sported by Asian travelers — as well as eye masks, earplugs and toothbrushes and toothpaste. We pulled from the gate after 6:10pm and, 25 minutes of slow taxiing later, we were in the air. 15 minutes later, we were offered newspapers in Japanese and English.

There are only three rows of Premium Economy.

When the attendants closed the curtains to business class, it started to feel a little claustrophobic, although having only three rows of seating creates an exclusive feel, b

There are culinary perks to being in Premium Economy.

Food and Beverage

20 minutes after wheels were up, a flight attendant gave me a towelette and a bottled water. 15 minutes later came a packet of seafood-flavor rice crackers and a choice of beverage. ANA had a premium-economy special menu, and one perk was the extended drink offering.
An American drinking Spanish Wine on a Japanese flight to Singapore.
An American drinking Spanish sparkling wine on a Japanese flight to Singapore.

I opted for a complimentary sparkling wine, and the 20 cl bottle of Spanish Codorníu was light and crisp. 

Dinner Menu Choices
A or B? I chose B.

40 minutes later, the flight attendants refreshed drinks and took orders for dinner, a choice between a Japanese dish (option A in the image above) and a Western one (option B).

The braised chicken was much better than it looked.

The chicken was much better than it looked, and the beans in particular were perfect — but the mashed potatoes were nothing to write home about and the small melange of vegetables was unremarkable. The salad was crisp and fresh, though. The highlight was the Japanese thin wheat noodles, which were not only adorable, but as good as could be expected: cool and firm and delicious even without the provided sauce. The cake was a little bitter, with a gelatinous topping that didn’t help with the flavor. I would have preferred fruit. The meal was served with metal flatware and chopsticks, and even the Western meal had packets of Japanese sauces and dressing. It was 45 minutes before the tray was cleared and more drinks were offered.

A flight attendant serves dessert.

35 minutes later, a flight attendant came by with desserts on a tray, a choice between a coconut pastry or a chocolate mousse. 

The mousse had layers. And lots of richness.

I chose the mousse and found it more like a parfait, with goopy chocolate at the bottom, cake in the middle and crunches on top. A generous portion, it was quite yummy and so rich I couldn’t finish it.

The roll tasted about as good as the accompanying towelette.

The lights dimmed shortly afterwards and within an hour, the cabin was dark. Two hours prior to landing, the lights came up, and we were served a plastic-wrapped roll with fruit jelly at the bottom. This was a miss: dull, flavorless and dry.

About an hour later came some hard candies and 25 minutes later, our final descent announcement.

At 12:35am local time (about 20 minutes late), wheels were down. Doors were opened 10 minutes later. There was a bit of an issue with passengers getting the curtains opened, the only evidence of a crew misstep the entire flight.

ANA FA at work

Overall Impression

If you want to see what hard-working fight-attendants look like, fly ANA. With five of them in economy and premium economy, I can’t remember a stretch of more than five minutes where I didn’t see one hustling. I’ve never seen more smiling flight attendants, even when they’re collecting trash. But I’ve also seen this in plain old ANA economy.
I was happy to have a bigger seat and free sparkling wine, but I would not describe this as a premium experience. If I had paid to upgrade from economy, I would have been disappointed.
I hated this armrest console.
I hated this armrest console.

With the cordoned-off section, fixed armrest, unruly tray table, odd under-seat configuration and reading light from hell, it was difficult to get and stay comfortable. The slippers, headphones and sundries were free but did not enhance my flight. But can I please still have my free sparkling wine and chocolate mousse?

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