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Japan Airlines is known for having some of the world’s best seats and service in international business class. So, when I was determining which airline I would take on a recent trip to China, I immediately thought of JAL. While it wouldn’t be first class, which I flew a few months ago, I still knew it would be a great experience — and it lived up to my expectations.
I had to attend a work event in Shanghai that included the purchase of a round-trip business-class ticket to the city. While the corporate travel agent I spoke to suggested Korean Air or Taiwan-based China Airlines, I asked if it might be possible to fly a Oneworld carrier instead since I either wanted to put this ticket toward earning Oneworld elite status for 2018/2019, or to credit miles from either American Airlines (which has a nonstop from Los Angeles to Shanghai), Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines to my Alaska Mileage Plan account since the airline is partners with all three.
The option I was given was a Japan Airlines flight via Tokyo Narita, which worked out great. I had flown the airline’s business class a few years ago and really enjoyed it, the flight times matched up to the schedule of events, and earning with either American AAdvantage or Alaska Mileage Plan would be lucrative.
The decision I had to make was which program to credit the miles to. My ticket was in the “X” fare bucket and the round-trip distance was about 13,140 miles. If I credited to American, I would be earning under this chart:
Thus, with AAdvantage, the earnings on my ticket would be as follows:
- 16,425 redeemable miles
- 19,710 elite-qualifying miles (EQMs)
- 3,285 elite-qualifying dollars (EQDs)
The above scenario would leave me 5,290 EQMs short of AAdvantage Gold. That’s the base level of elite status with the airline, but it also confers Oneworld Ruby status, so at least it would get me a few perks when flying American’s partner airlines, which was the reason I was interested in it to begin with.
With Alaska, I’d earn under this chart:
In this scenario, I’d earn fewer elite-qualifying miles (16,425), but a whole lot more redeemable miles. Thanks to my elite status, the class-of-service bonus and Alaska’s additional 100% bonus on premium partner tickets, I’d earn 38,250 redeemable miles. In the end, I decided to credit my flights to Alaska and forego a few thousand elite miles in AAdvantage in favor of earning a lot more award miles with Mileage Plan.
If you’re interested in booking JAL business class as an award, AA will charge you 60,000 miles each way to/from Japan, or 70,000 to the rest of Asia. Alaska charges 60,000 miles to Japan as well, but just 65,000 miles to the rest of Asia, so you might as well tack on an additional flight (like my Tokyo-Shanghai leg) for a mere 5,000 miles more. You can find JAL award space either by searching on BritishAirways.com, or directly on AlaskaAir.com, the latter of which I prefer since you can filter your search to specific airlines and see availability a week at a time compared to BA’s day-based interface.
Check-in and Lounge
My flight was scheduled to depart at 12:00pm on a Monday. I figured it wouldn’t be all that busy, but I still had to check a bag, so I arrived at LAX at 10:15am. The timing of the flight is interesting since you have the morning in LA, fly 11 hours and then arrive in Tokyo in the evening — it’s basically like having a very long day.
While the line for economy check-in was long (mainly thanks to a youth sports team that was on the flight), there were just a few people waiting in the business-class line, and I was actually called over to the first-class counter for a speedier check-in. I had already selected my seats, so the agent just confirmed my bag was going all the way through to Shanghai, then handed me my boarding pass and an invitation to the Oneworld lounge.
The security process at Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) is abysmal at the best of times. Though it wasn’t too busy, it still took me a good 20-25 minutes to snake my way through the ID check and security screening, which left me with just a little bit of time to enjoy the Oneworld lounge.
The lounge is located on the fifth floor of the terminal, one level above the main concourse. To access it, you must be traveling in business class on a Oneworld airline departing TBIT, or you can enter if you’re a Oneworld Emerald or Sapphire member traveling on a Oneworld carrier in any class of service.
The lounge contains a nice bar where you can serve yourself wine or water, but bartenders will pour spirits and draft beers.
There was a light lunch buffet set out including a Caesar salad, fruit salad and corn salsa with tortilla chips.
I personally like the dining area for work since the banquettes have power ports under them.
The areas with chairs and ottomans around the perimeter of the lounge are also nice for taking a quick nap or working quietly.
The signature design touch is a circular, chalet-style fireplace by the bar and on the way to the restrooms. It’s just so swanky compared to most US lounges.
I had some water and a cappuccino from one of the self-serve machines then headed to my gate to try to board early.
Aircraft and Boarding
One of the things I love about Japan Airlines is how orderly everything is — including the boarding process. I got to the gate 15 minutes before boarding was even supposed to begin and the gate agents were already lining people up by cabin. I was first in the business-class line, hoping to get some shots of the cabin without other passengers in it.
Alas, that was not to be the case since the flight was packed with Oneworld elites whom board first, along with first class (which was completely full on this flight) and folks needing assistance or extra time.
Still, no one seemed to mind my taking photos of the cabin, and I was able to snap a few shots both as I boarded and once boarding was complete, which took about 30 minutes total with flight attendants stationed every few rows to help passengers find their seats and get their bags into the overheads quickly.
Cabin and Seat
Japan Airlines’ 777-300ER business class has 49 seats spread across seven rows. Row five is a single set of seats just behind the first-class cabin and separated from the rest of business class by the galley and two lavatories.
In both sections, the rows are arranged in a staggered 2–3–2 pattern, which sounds tight, but is actually quite spacious and private. These are Apex Suites, like you’ll find on some of Korean Air’s jets, Oman Air and Gulf Air’s forthcoming 787s — they’re truly some of my favorite seats.
In the pairs on either side of the cabin, the window seat is set about a foot in front of the aisle seat. It has its own small passageway to the aisle carved out between the back of the preceding row and in front of where the aisle seat passenger’s footrest and IFE screen are.
In the center section, the middle seat is set slightly ahead of the seats on either side, and the passenger in it can access the aisle via that same small path carved between the preceding seats and the seats in its own row on either side.
There is a privacy divider between the two seats that is lowered for takeoff and landing, but can be raised electronically with the push of a button for the rest of the flight, meaning you might not even see your seatmate at all.
I found that on both my flights, from LA to Tokyo and back again, I wasn’t even aware of the person sitting next to me. If you’re in a window seat, you’re totally removed from the activity in the aisle and the rest of the cabin.
The one downside to these seats, as I see it, is that they’re not great for couples or colleagues traveling together. Because of their staggered layout and the placement of the dividers, you’d have a hard time talking to a travel buddy. But for the rest of us who prefer privacy, they’re fantastic.
Although there were no window seats available when I booked my ticket, I kept logging back into my reservation on JAL’s site every few days and eventually seat 12A in the very last row opened up, so I snagged it.
Apart from the structure of the cabin, I liked the palette of red and gray along with blond wood siding. It gave the space a simple but stylish look with some color thrown in.
Each seat is 25.5 inches wide and reclines to a 74-inch bed. They have a narrow armrest on either the window or aisle side, depending on where you’re sitting. On the other is a panel with buttons to control the various parts of the seat, including the privacy divider and a massage function, plus three preset positions for being upright, lounging or sleeping.
One of the other things I really like about the Apex is that the footrest isn’t in a cubby, so you have more freedom of movement when you’re reclined all the way. It also means you can keep a carry-on bag with you on the ground rather than having to place it in the overhead, giving you easier access to your belongings. It’s also nice that the table stows into the side console and slides backwards and forwards for more comfort.
The seat had a universal power plug and a USB port just under the ledge that ran along the side toward the aisle. I could set my phone on the ledge while it charged, though I had to put my laptop on the counter under my IFE monitor while it charged since the ledge was not deep enough to support it.
The headset jack was next to the seatback.
When you’re ready to go to sleep, the flight attendants will lay out Airweave mattress pads that are breathable and keep you cool as you sleep. I found it comfortable and was glad to have something to put down between my body and the seat itself as I slept.
I took a few photos of one of the unoccupied aisle seats in the center section since it was difficult to get a good angle on my own seat without disturbing other passengers.
As you can see, it basically looks like a narrow twin bed, and there is a lot of room to turn and get into a comfortable position since there’s nothing obstructing your knees or feet.
After meal service, which ended approximately three hours into the flight, I slept for six hours, which gave me a further two hours of flight time to have a light snack and get some more work done.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
Waiting for me when I boarded were a set of slippers, a light blanket and a full-size Airweave pillow that molded to my back.
The high-definition in-flight entertainment screens in JAL business class measure in at an industry-leading 23 inches. Though they technically are touch screens, they’re too far away to use conveniently like that. Fortunately, each seat has a touchscreen handset that stows in the side console.
You can actually watch one thing on the main screen and do something else like play a game or watch your flight path on the remote.
There were over 100 movie selections and I thought the choices were decent, with recent releases like “The Shape of Water.”
The airline provides headsets, but they’re awful, so I would suggest bringing your own.
Shortly after I boarded, a flight attendant came by with a metallic Zero Halliburton amenity kit. It was stocked with the basics like tissues, earplugs, a dental kit and eye mask and some lip balm, but no other skincare products.
The airline doesn’t provide sleepwear, so bring your own change of clothes if you want something fresh to wear. I brought some gym shorts to change into, which was a good decision because the cabin was kept rather warm. I did ask the flight attendants to turn the temperature down in my section, though, and they were happy to do so.
The flight also featured Wi-Fi from T-Mobile. JAL cardholders got a 10% discount, but otherwise the passes cost $18 for a 24-hour plan with no data limit, $10.15 for an hour, or $14.40 for three hours. I had a lot of work to do, so I purchased a pass, and while the Wi-Fi was good enough to check email and load basic sites, I couldn’t do much else, so I wouldn’t recommend buying a pass unless you absolutely have to.
There were four lavatories for business class, two in the front of the cabin, and two in the rear (though premium economy passengers also used those). They were kept spotless for the entire flight, with attendants cleaning them after every passenger or two.
They also had fancy toilets with washing and massage functions, though I cannot imagine why anyone would want to use those in an airplane bathroom…
Food and Beverage
One of the aspects of the flight I was most looking forward to was the meal service. I think Japan Airlines has some of the best catering in the world, and this flight didn’t disappoint.
JAL calls its food and beverage program BEDD, a “sky auberge,” and an “exclusive restaurant in the sky.” The airline works with nine well-known chefs like Yosuke Suga of SUGALABO and Jun Kurogi of Kurogi (who also works with American Airlines now) to create its menus, while Motohiro Okoshi, wine director at SUGALABO, chooses the wines.
While boarding was still going on, the flight attendant taking care of my section brought me a glass of Delamotte Blanc de Blancs Champagne and the food and wine menus. Like many Asian airlines, JAL offers Asian and Western menus, but unfortunately you can’t mix and match dishes from the two. The flight attendant came back during taxi to take my order — I opted for the Japanese menu.
Lunch service began about 45 minutes into the flight with a beverage of choice (I opted for sparkling water and a glass of white wine) and two small bites: tomato mousse with basil-flavored bocconcini and marinated shrimp and zucchini with anchovy cream. Both were light and delicious.
Another flight attendant came back to make up my table and take away the empty plates. Then, it was about 30 minutes before the crew came back through to start the main meal service.
The Japanese starter course came with a plethora of small plates including a simmered Chinese cabbage roll stuffed with minced chicken, chicken teriyaki, yam pudding, beans with sesame vinegar, shrimp with condensed egg yolk, a conger eel roll with burdock and vinegar-marinated yam, roasted bamboo shoots and broccoli with mustard. This is one of my favorite service courses on any airline — there are just so many choices, flavors and textures. With it, I tried the Viré Clessé 2016 Chardonnay from Burgundy, which was light and refreshing, if not memorable. The other white wine onboard was a dry Sauvignon Blanc from Germany.
After 20 minutes, the flight attendants came back through the cabin with main courses, which included two plates on the Japanese menu. One was a grilled salmon with Japanese tartar sauce, which was flavorful but a little dry. The other was braised beef with tofu and sweet soy sauce, which had a nice balance of flavors. These were served with a bowl of miso soup, various pickled vegetables — whose acidity cut the richness of the beef — and steamed Koshihikari rice. I opted for a glass of 2015 Silver Label Monastrell from Spain over a Novas Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile’s Maipo Valley and the lighter-bodied Castle Rock Pinot Noir from Sonoma.
Finally, for dessert, there was a delicious, creamy but light raspberry cream pistachio cake from Jin Patisserie.
Among the other beverages available were Tosa Shiragiku Junmai Ginjo sake from Shikoku, plum wine, Suntory The Yamazaki single malt whiskey, Bombay Sapphire gin, Rémy Martin Cognac, various Japanese beers and shochus, sodas, juices and sparkling and still water.
The Western menu featured dishes like tuna tagliata with spring vegetables, a choice of beef tenderloin with mustard-artichoke salsa, or sautéed sea bass with Yukon potato gnocchi in a white asparagus carbonara sauce.
There was no set-style breakfast or lunch service before landing. Instead, there were light meal options available any time from the main meal service through 90 minutes before touchdown. They included oven-baked vegetable penne pasta, vegetable curry with Hokkaido potatoes, a foie gras burger, vegetable ramen noodles and Japanese udon noodles in a vegetable broth, a bagel sandwich with smoked salmon, and more.
The flight attendants put snacks out in the galley, including chocolates, crackers, cookies, chips, water, wine and orange juice.
Because of the timing of my flight, I went to sleep shortly after the main meal service, slept for six hours or so and then worked for a while before ordering the vegetable ramen noodles and a cup of coffee for what would be a late lunch, according to the time in Shanghai. The noodles were… not great. The broth was tasteless, as were the noodles themselves, and there was some sort of tofu chunk with the texture of pâté that was not at all palatable.
With its JAL Café Lines program, the airline partners with a coffee expert named Yoshiaki Kawashima to feature hand-selected beans on flights. The one available during my trip was a “Bourbon Elite” Arabica cultivar from El Salvador with a dark roast but balanced acidity and it was pretty much as good as a regular old cup of filtered coffee.
For the remainder of the flight, I worked and had another cup of coffee. Then we started our descent into Tokyo Narita, spent 10 minutes taxiing into our gate, and deplaned quickly.
I had just enough time to duck into the JAL Sakura Lounge for a quick shower and a cup of tea before boarding my onward flight to Shanghai.
Japan Airlines remains one of my favorite ways to fly business class between the US and Asia. The Apex seats are among the best in the industry thanks to their spaciousness and privacy, the entertainment system is up-to-date with current flicks, and the food program is among the best out there. I do, however, think the airline could improve the wines it carries, offer passengers pajamas and provide better Wi-Fi.
To me, the most important aspects of a flight like this are having a decent meal and getting some quality sleep, and JAL certainly delivered on both of those, as well as having an efficient and friendly service culture plus an excellent lounge at Narita. Add in the mileage-earning bonuses with Alaska (or the opportunity to redeem either Alaska or American AAdvantage miles on the airline), and JAL is going to continue to be a compelling choice for my travels to Asia.
Know before you go.
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Japan Airlines has one of the best business-class products around, both in terms of seats and amenities. The pros: great suite-style seats, fantastic food. The cons: Potentially inconvenient flight times, limited US gateways.
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