First Class Showdown: Cathay Pacific vs. Japan Airlines
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It can be easy to lump the most renowned airlines in the world together, especially when you’re considering premium cabins. After all, the onboard experiences in business or first class on top international carriers can be quite similar, but in certain cases, the overlap is undeniable. One such example of this involves two popular airlines based in Asia: Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines (JAL). While the two operate from different home countries, the similarities can be overwhelming.
Let’s start with an easy one: both are Asia-based members of the Oneworld alliance. Ok, simple enough. But they also have very similar fleet structures, using Boeing 777-300ERs to fly their luxurious first class cabins around the globe and next generation aircraft (A350s for Cathay Pacific and 787s for JAL) to round out their long-haul fleets. Both are also Skytrax-certified five star airlines, a proud and exclusive honor only bestowed on 11 carriers around the world. And, perhaps most importantly, both often get thrown around in the same breath when discussing one of the single best award sweet spots out there (but more on that later).
For all of these similarities though, there are some small differences that might lead you to pick one over the other for your next vacation, especially if you’re looking to sit at the very front of the plane. Obviously if you’re going to Tokyo you’re not going to go out of the way and stop in Hong Kong to get there, but the subtle differences in seat layout, service philosophy, and ease of booking can lead to two distinct experiences for the discerning first class traveler. While you can’t go wrong booking either of these airlines, today we’ll take a close look at the minor differences that make these two carriers stand out from each other.
Fleet & Route Network
As I mentioned above, both carriers only offer first class cabins on their respective 777-300ERs (also known as “77Ws”). JAL has 13 of these jumbo jets and flies them from its hubs at both Tokyo-Haneda (HND) and Tokyo-Narita (NRT) to only six destinations around the world:
Cathay Pacific, on the other hand, has a whopping 52 77Ws in its fleet, though just over 30 of these feature first class cabins. Nevertheless, given the sheer numbers of these first class-equipped planes with Cathay’s livery, the carrier is able to offer first class service to as many North American destinations as JAL offers to the entire world.
Verdict: Cathay Pacific has an obvious edge here, one that largely stems from the fact that they have almost three times as many planes equipped with first class. Unless you live in one of six specific cities to which JAL flies its 777-300ER, you’re not going to be flying first class on the carrier any time soon.
Award Availability Trends
Searching and booking Cathay Pacific first class awards follows a pretty rote formula. Of the six seats in the forward-most cabin, Cathay will generally release one for award bookings far in advance when the schedule first opens. Then, if there are unsold seats in the weeks and days before departure, Cathay may release one or two more seats. This works well for solo travelers who can often find an award seat if they’re even slightly flexible with their dates and departure city (i.e. willing to consider a positioning flight to a major airport like New York-JFK or Los Angeles (LAX), where Cathay has multiple daily flights from both cities). However, it poses real problems for couples and families. You will rarely see two first class award seats available on the same flight at the same time, so your best bet is to book one first class and one business class award, and hope that second seat becomes available before the flight leaves. Obviously there’s no guarantee of that happening, so you might be stuck playing an awkward game of rock paper scissors to see who gets the bigger seat and better service.
On the other hand, finding JAL award space is a bit more luck than skill. Despite having more seats in the cabin (8 vs. Cathay’s 6), it’s not unusual to see no first class award space from Tokyo to the entire US for weeks at a time. You might see one or two seats open up far in advance, but unlike Cathay it tends to be sporadic and harder to predict. Where JAL really shines is with last minute award space. If you’re patient and flexible, JAL will often release three or more first class award seats on a single flight in the days before departure. Earlier this year, they even made half of the 16 first class seats flying to New York-JFK on a single day (8 from Tokyo-Narita and 8 from Tokyo-Haneda) open to awards. Even now there are days where half of the cabin is bookable on a single flight, which is great for couples and families traveling together.
Regardless of which airline you’re hoping to book, the British Airways website is (unfortunately) one of the best ways to find award space on these two partners. If you’re traveling past either carrier’s hub, like flying from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Bangkok (BKK) through Hong Kong, you should search segment by segment to make sure you see all the space. This means one search for the Chicago-Hong Kong leg and another search from Hong Kong to Bangkok. You can also use the Qantas website, which is sometimes better at showing complete itineraries on Cathay.
For more details on this search process, be sure to review Richard Kerr’s post on the Best Websites for Searching Oneworld Alliance Availability.
Verdict: I like consistency, so I give Cathay the edge here. I like knowing that on almost any day I can find at least one award seat to or from the US if I’m booking in advance. If I was traveling with someone though, I’d have to pick JAL, because you’re just as likely to find three seats as you are to find one on a given flight, especially as the departure date approaches.
In order to keep this as an apples-to-apples comparison, I’ll ignore trips to Japan (or South Korea) where JAL has an obvious advantage due to lower award prices and shorter trips. Instead I’ll focus on travel to/from China or South Asia. Depending on the airline, date and departure gateway, cash prices for these tickets will range from around $10,000 up to almost $20,000 for a one-way first class ticket. You should (of course) book through the loyalty program that charges you the lowest amount of miles, but don’t get too caught up on the exact valuation. With prices this outrageous, you’ll be getting a great deal no matter what the numbers say.
One of my single favorite redemptions in the entire realm of award travel is through Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. Because Alaska is not a member of one of the three major alliances, they’ve instead built a network of partner airlines and have different award charts for each partner. In many instances, you’ll find the best prices out there.
Here are the award costs for one-way travel on Cathay Pacific from the US to Asia.
And here’s the same award chart for Japan Airlines:
For flights to much of Asia, both airlines are tied at 70,000 miles for one-way first class awards, and thanks to Alaska’s generous routing rules, you can enjoy a free stopover in either Tokyo or Hong Kong when you redeem Alaska miles for either of these carriers. TPG values Alaska miles at 1.8 cents each, meaning these awards “cost” $1,260 worth of miles.
Note that flights to South East Asia will jump to 75,000 miles on JAL vs. 70,000 on Cathay Pacific.
It’s also worth highlighting that business class on Cathay Pacific is significantly cheaper for flights to all of Asia, at 50,000 miles vs. 60.000 to 65,000 miles each way.
Despite all of this, I think JAL has a slight edge when it comes to booking with Alaska. This boils down to one main reason: you can’t search Cathay award space on the Alaska website, and you can with JAL. Calling isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but it is much simpler to login to your Alaska account and search for your desired flight:
Unlike Alaska, American Airlines treats both of these fellow Oneworld partners equally when it comes to booking flights to the Asia 2 region (everything except for Japan and Korea, which are priced under the cheaper Asia 1). From the United states, one-way awards will cost 110,000 miles in first class (worth $1,540 based on TPG’s latest valuations), 70,000 in business class or 37,500 in economy. Unfortunately, neither JAL nor Cathay Pacific awards can be booked online or through the AA app. You’ll need to find award space elsewhere and call in to book.
Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles program is a little confusing. Because it uses a distance-based award chart for flights on Cathay metal but a region-based chart for partner awards, sometimes an award ticket for JAL first class might be cheaper than a comparable trip on Cathay.
First class from the US to Asia will always cost 120,000 miles each way on JAL, regardless of your departure city. But if you’re flying from the East Coast to Hong Kong, it will cost 125,000 miles on Cathay Pacific. Meanwhile the shortest possible routes (from the West Coast to Hong Kong) will only cost 100,000 Asia Miles on Cathay Pacific.
To complicate things even further, JAL Mileage Bank does the exact opposite, with a zone-based award chart for flights on its own metal and a distance-based partner award chart. One-way tickets from North America to Hong Kong on JAL-operated itinerary will set you back 80,000 Mileage Bank miles each way plus up to $500 in taxes and fees. This is a phenomenal deal and one of many reasons Mileage Bank is one of the most underrated loyalty programs.
For Oneworld partner awards, you’ll use the following distance-based award chart:
With the exception of Hong Kong to New York, all of Cathay Pacific’s US routes are under 8,000 miles and should cost 100,000 Mileage Bank miles to book a one way first class award.
Verdict: I once again give the nod to Cathay Pacific here. JAL’s only edge is the ability to book directly on the Alaska website without calling in, but Cathay makes up for that with better pricing almost across the board along with a more robust intra-Asia route network if you’re traveling beyond Hong Kong.
Lounges & Ground Services
The fact that Cathay Pacific operates out of a single hub in Hong Kong as opposed to JAL’s two (one at Tokyo-Narita and one at Tokyo-Haneda) makes things a little more complicated, but you can expect to have a fairly similar experience no matter which Tokyo airport you depart from.
Let’s start with Hong Kong, my favorite airport in the world. Cathay Pacific offers two distinct first class lounges: The Wing and The Pier. While many travelers will pick the lounge that’s closest to their departing flight, these lounges feature quite different designs, allowing you to pick the one that best suits your mood if you have an extended layover.
I have a personal preference for The Wing, which is elevated on the second level of the terminal. Not only do you get incredible views of all the wide-body aircraft making their way through Hong Kong, but The Wing also features a number of incredibly private cabana rooms. I would recommend asking for one as soon as you get to the lounge — competition is fierce and they book up quickly! The Wing is also home to Cathay’s world-renowned noodle bar as well as plenty of other food and beverage options.
If one of The Wing’s strongest selling points is its great views, than The Pier is worth a visit because it does an amazing job making you forget you’re in an airport. You actually have to take a (poorly signed) escalator down one level to access the lounge.
Once inside you’ll be greeted by a welcoming and relaxing design, complimentary spa treatments and even more food. You really can’t go wrong with either of these lounges, and if you’re a Oneworld Emerald elite or are traveling in Cathay Pacific first class, it might be worth planning a longer-than-normal layover in Hong Kong to spend some time lounging around.
Japan Airlines’ lounges are also quite luxurious. When you enter the carrier’s first class lounge at Tokyo-Haneda, you turn down a beautiful and calming hallway.
The lounge features a great selection of food, drink and (most importantly to me and other #AvGeeks) tarmac views, but other than that I didn’t find it all that impressive. It checks all the boxes and does everything right, but there wasn’t anything unique that made it stand out to me.
While I haven’t been to the lounge at Narita myself, both lounges feature a made to order sushi bar.
Verdict: While JAL has to split its lounges over two airports (and compete for terminal real estate with ANA), Cathay wins again with the diversity and uniqueness of its lounge options.
Cathay features one of the most spacious first class configurations of any airline flying a 777. Where most airlines squeeze four seats across in a 1-2-1 layout, Cathay has six seats spread across two rows in a 1-1-1 layout. This means that the seats clock in at a full three feet wide with 81 inches of pitch.
This configuration also leads to an incredible amount of privacy. Seats 1D and 2D open up to the right side of the plane, meaning that 1A and 2A have a private aisle to themselves.
For reference, here was my view from seat 1A when I flew Cathay Pacific first class a few years ago:
Of course it goes without saying that privacy cuts both ways. If you’re traveling with someone, this much privacy means you might not see them at all for the entire 15 hour flight.
In addition to the 15.4 inch TV that swivels out from the seat in front of you, the seat contains an ottoman that becomes part of the bed when reclined.
And notice that seatbelt? The ottoman can double as a buddy seat if you’d like to dine with your travel companion at 35,000 feet.
The bed was the plushest I’ve ever had in the air, and if you’re prone to rolling around when you sleep, this is where you’ll appreciate the three-foot-wide seat.
First class, of course, is all about the little details, including the orchid you’ll find at every seat.
Sure it doesn’t have the bling of Emirates’ new first class suite, but it’s still an amazingly comfortable way to cross the Pacific.
JAL’s first class cabin features eight seats spread over two rows in the much more standard 1-2-1 layout, but you won’t be cramped for space. Each seat is 33 inches wide and offers 78.5 inches of pitch.
While window seats are obviously preferable for solo travelers, the retractable privacy divider means that even if you’re seated next to a stranger in the middle section you can enjoy some privacy.
The TVs are 23 inches wide, and as you can see, JAL also installed seatbelts on the ottoman so you can dine facing your companion if you wish.
You have a number of different sized storage compartments along the side of the seat that can fit anything from a phone or wallet to a laptop and headphones.
The seats are slightly more exposed than Cathay Pacific, but they still offer plenty of privacy, especially when reclined into bed mode.
JAL also does something that I’ve never seen from another airline. When you’re ready to go to sleep, the flight attendants will give you a choice between a hard or soft mattress pad.
I found the coffee and cream colors of the JAL cabin to be incredibly soothing, and the seat was very comfortable for lounging during the flight.
Verdict: While Cathay doesn’t offer the smallest 77W first class cabin, they certainly have a comfortable one. Closing doors are a great gimmick, but they become downright unnecessary with the amount of space and privacy Cathay provides. This is not a knock on JAL which does everything right in its F cabin, but you simply can’t compete with Cathay’s spacious product here.
Soft Product (Food, Service & Amenities)
Let me start with a disclaimer: This will likely be the most personal and divisive section yet, so before we dive in, I’d like to briefly explain my “qualifications.” I’ve personally flown both Cathay and JAL on long-haul, first class flights of 13 – 15 hours, and have read just about every review that’s been published anywhere on the internet. One phenomenal crew or overcooked steak might change your opinion, but the impressions I’m sharing here are based on my own experiences and those of others.
To keep this organized I’ll break each airline into three categories and compare them head-to-head on food & drink, amenities and service.
Food & Drink
Let’s start with the most important thing about first class: the champagne. After decades of being #allKrug, Cathay Pacific switched and is now offering Champagne Deutz Cuvée William Deutz 2006, which retails for about $140. JAL, on the other hand, serves both Louis Roderer Cristal 2009 (which retails for about $250) and Bollinger La Grande Annee 2007. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that price is the only deciding factor, but the Cristal was absolutely sublime, and Cathay’s move away from Krug was clearly a downgrade. It’s also nice to have options at 36,000 feet, so JAL wins the first round.
Both airlines offer western menus as well as meal options inspired by their respective home countries. Of course, both offer a caviar course to start things off right. Cathay goes with a very traditional presentation: a full tin of caviar, blinis, chopped egg, sour cream and lemon. Tried, tested and delicious.
JAL switches things up more frequently, but they are currently serving an egg yolk cream and rice wafers with their caviar course. It makes for a beautiful presentation, but I personally found the egg yolk cream a bit too rich and overpowering to go with the caviar.
The main course is one of the few areas where Cathay could use a little bit of improvement. Few airlines can cook a steak perfectly in the air, and Cathay isn’t one of them. The other western options (usually a pasta dish and a seafood dish) are often underwhelming though certainly edible and better than what you’d get in economy. When I flew Cathay, I even found the snack menu to be disappointing. The duck noodle soup I ordered was bland and flavorless and certainly a culinary low point.
My multi-course meal with JAL, on the other hand, was one of the best I’ve ever had (in the air or on the ground). Let me begin by saying that you need to be a little adventurous to try the Japanese menu, which included interesting flavors like blowfish and deep friend burdock root. I didn’t love every single dish I ate, but the combination and variety of flavors and ingredients blew me away.
I also loved that the meal included many small dishes. The food never stopped coming, but it somehow felt lighter than eating one single steak.
Verdict: I still have dreams about the meal I was served on my JAL flight, a medley of flavors I can’t even remember without referencing the menu. Even if you opt for the western option instead, you can expect a meal that you would be thrilled (not just satisfied) to receive at a restaurant.
Both airlines will give you pajamas and a well-stocked amenity kit. This is mostly personal preference, but I thought Cathay’s pajamas were softer and more comfortable. However, others might appreciate that JAL offers a zippered top (instead of an awkward button) and that the pajamas included JAL branding, while Cathay’s were plain.
The amenity kit is one of the few points of differentiation. Cathay offers an amenity kit provided by Aesop, which has remained mostly unchanged over the years. I do love their ultra-soft eye masks and still use it as my go-to when I’m traveling.
JAL’s current amenity kit is designed by Etro and features all the basics, including some lotion, lip balm, eye shade, socks, etc. But the gift-giving doesn’t end there. In addition to a fully stocked amenity kit, all first class passengers get a Shisheido skin care set. These are very high-end products and a nice addition to the experience. I love the hydrating lotion, a very useful product after 14 hours on a plane.
Of course, amenities are more than just the lotions and creams you get as a first class passenger. I count in flight entertainment as an amenity, and this is an area where Cathay Pacific is second to none. The carrier’s “Studio CX” system is one of the best in the industry, featuring a diverse range of movies and TV shows to keep anyone happily entertained.
JAL’s in flight entertainment was fine, as I was able to find a few movies I was happy to watch, but it definitely took more digging on my part. Of course after a few glasses of Cristal I was happy to watch Zootopia for a third time, but that wouldn’t necessarily have been my first choice going in to the flight.
Verdict: This is a closer race, and it depends what you value. If entertainment is the most important thing to you, pick Cathay no doubt. However, if you enjoy boarding a first class flight and being showered with fancy gifts, JAL has a slight (but clear) edge.
This is by far the trickiest part to write up, as so much can vary from flight to flight. However, let me start with one consistent piece: the “Welcome aboard” note from the Cathay flight attendants. You’ll find this on every Cathay first class flight, usually tucked behind your champagne glass along with the appetizer. Not only is it a great gesture, but when you want to remember the names of your INCREDIBLE flight attendants a few years later, this is a surefire way to do it.
It’s also worth noting that service in the first class cabin can also reach stratospheric levels. My Cathay Pacific flight was two days after my 21st birthday, a birthday which I’d spent working all day before I left for Thailand (great trade-off if you ask me!). When I boarded the flight, I happily asked for a glass of champagne before departure, and Raf, my flight attendant, asked to see some ID. I proudly showed him my passport and said that my birthday had been just two days ago, and he popped the Krug to kick off my celebration.
Fast forward 15 hours and we’re about to start descending into Hong Kong. I’m finishing up breakfast and beginning to stow my tray table when Raf comes running over and insists that I wait a minute. I agree, a little confused, and he comes back with a box of Cathay branded chocolates, a birthday card signed by the entire crew and a special dessert. I’d mentioned my birthday in an off-handed way, and he happily found a way to provide over-the-top service to me.
The entire flight I was addressed by name at every interaction, proactively offered refills of my champagne, water and coffee (all three were very necessary on this flight), and generally treated like a guest in his home. I don’t do this often but when we landed, I emailed Cathay Pacific immediately to compliment Raf on the great service.
The flight attendants on JAL took great care of me, but there was noticeably more of a language barrier. The service was flawless, but it felt a little more distant and less personal (i.e. I was proactively offered refills but there was no attempt to make any personal conversation). Still, the desire to please was just as apparent as it was on Cathay Pacific. My dad is an avid coffee drinker, and JAL has some of the most gorgeous coffee mugs I’ve ever seen. I half-jokingly asked the flight attendant if there was anywhere to buy them as a gift for my dad, and she said unfortunately they were only available in first class. As we were beginning our approach into New York, she came by my seat with a gift wrapped package and after carefully checking that no one was watching, put it in my backpack. What was inside? My dad’s new favorite coffee mug.
Verdict: I honestly don’t feel comfortable declaring a universal winner here. My own flight with Cathay Pacific was ever so slightly better, but who knows if I’d be saying that if I’d been sitting on the other side of the plane (and served by the other flight attendant). I will say that Cathay’s service style felt more personal while JAL’s felt more distant, but in both cases the service was excellent. You’re in for a treat, regardless of which carrier you choose to fly.
I said this at the beginning but feel the need to reiterate here: You can’t go wrong with either of these airlines. They are two of the best in the world, especially for flights between the US and Asia, and they’ll be a brag-worthy experience no matter which one you manage to book. The differences are subtle but worth noting. If you plan on traveling with a friend or family member, you’ll have an easier time finding 2+ award seats together on JAL. That works better, as solo travelers will appreciate the incredible privacy of Cathay’s seats that pretty much preclude any conversation with your neighbors. JAL served one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life, whereas Cathay’s lounges were more luxurious. Both airlines offered truly five star service but in different ways.
Ultimately it’s up to you to decide which airline sounds better for you, and there’s only one way to know for sure. Try both of them! We’re incredibly lucky to be in a hobby that allows us to travel the world on top-notch airlines and luxurious cabins for next to nothing, and Cathay Pacific and JAL are just two of these options. If you only take one thing away from this post, let it be that reading flight reviews can help you tease out the minor differences between airlines and get the absolute best experience for you on your next trip.
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