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Seat are primarily what differentiates premium economy from economy — and Japan Airlines has some of the best premium economy seats. Pros: seats that recline within their shell, privacy partitions between most seats and ample pitch. Cons: same food and service as economy class, uninspiring entertainment options and limited storage under most seats.

My husband, TPG writer JT Genter, and I recently decided to race each other from Singapore to New York. The race wasn’t exactly fair, as JT took the world’s longest flight, from Singapore to Newark, on Singapore Airlines, while I took a two-stop, multiple-ticket route via Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo.

But I daresay my route, including Japan Airlines premium economy on two flights, the Malaysia Airlines first-class Golden Lounge and the JAL first-class lounge, was the superior experience. I’d flown Japan Airlines before in business class and economy, but here’s my take on JAL’s 777-300ER premium economy product between Tokyo (NRT) and New York-JFK.

In This Post

Booking

I wanted to remain flexible while traveling in Asia, so I booked my ticket just five days before departure. Even at the last minute, a one-way premium economy ticket from Kuala Lumpur (KUL) to New York-JFK on Japan Airlines via Tokyo Narita was only 4,600 Malaysian ringgit (about $1,100).

I’d almost requalified for American Airlines Executive Platinum elite status — I just needed more Elite Qualifying Dollars — and booking premium economy can be a great way to get EQDs. At 10,102 miles, this JAL premium economy fare earned $2,020 EQDs when credited to American Airlines, since EQDs for partner tickets are calculated based on mileage. We used JT’s Ritz-Carlton Rewards credit card (no longer available for sign-ups), since this purchase finished off his minimum spending requirement to get the sign-up bonus. But if we didn’t need to work toward hitting a minimum spend, I would have used the Chase Sapphire Reserve to earn 3x Chase Ultimate Rewards points on the purchase while being protected by the card’s excellent travel protections.

Check-in

About 48 hours before my flight, I received an email saying I couldn’t be checked in online — even though I hadn’t even tried to check in online. Being stubborn, I went to JAL’s website and found that I was able to check in, so I’m not sure why the email said I couldn’t do so.

During check-in, JAL’s website told me, “Least preferred seat has been assigned,” seemingly because the seat’s armrest isn’t movable.

I switched from 19G to 19D, since JAL’s website only listed PC power supply for 19D. But as I found on board, all premium economy seats have access to universal power outlets and none of the armrests are moveable.

For many flights, you can upgrade from economy to premium economy using points or cash. The cash upgrade rate between Tokyo and New York was $350 one-way when departing New York or 40,000 yen (about $355) one-way when departing Tokyo. It was also possible to upgrade using JAL Mileage Bank miles for 20,000 miles one-way or 16,000 miles one-way if done at airport check-in.

This sign at check-in showed upgrade options on the KUL-to-NRT route.

Lounge

Before this flight, I spent about nine hours in the Japan Airlines first-class lounge after arriving from Kuala Lumpur. I’ve reviewed this lounge separately, but you’ll only have access if you’re flying in first class or if you’re a Oneworld Emerald elite member. If you book a premium economy ticket on Japan Airlines and don’t have status, you’ll get access to JAL’s business-class Sakura Lounge.

My favorite place in the JAL First Class Lounge: the sushi bar.
My favorite place: the sushi bar.

Boarding

Boarding began just a couple minutes late.

As passengers lined up, a gate agent checked each passenger’s passport and asked if their carry-on bags had ever left their sight. There were security agents positioned for secondary screening, but they didn’t stop any passengers before I boarded in Group 2.

Cabin and Seat

JAL’s 777-300ER on this route had four classes: first, business, premium economy and economy. The premium economy cabin, rows 17 through 21, had a 2-4-2 arrangement.

Each premium economy seat was 19 inches wide and had an impressive 41.25-inch pitch. The headrests had bendable wings that could support your head or neck while sleeping. There was a focused reading light that extended from near the privacy divider by the headrest.

The armrest between each seat was 5 inches wide. The armrest between seats E and F was a double armrest, while the armrests between seats A and C, D and E, F and G, and H and K ended in a small drink table. None of the armrests were movable.

The armrests that ended in a drink table were part of a column that ran from the floor to the armrests and connected up to the privacy divider. The bottom of each column had two universal power outlets that were shared by two passengers.

On the back of the column, there were nooks for water bottles. To prevent inflight disputes, the nooks were labeled “for right side” and “for left side.”

A handset for the inflight entertainment, buttons for reclining the seat and extending the legrest and a nook large enough to hold the provided slippers were on the side of the armrest that ended in a drink table.

There were privacy dividers between most premium economy seats. The only seats that weren’t separated by a divider were the two middle seats (E and F). Although I didn’t have a passenger next to me on this flight, I did have a passenger next to me on my previous JAL flight from Kuala Lumpur to Narita, so I can attest to the divider making a big difference in terms of privacy and comfort.

The 12-inch IFE screen was crisp but didn’t tilt. There was also a coat hook, USB outlet and audio jack.

The table that folded down was sturdy and large enough to comfortably hold a medium-sized laptop and a drink.

The seats had an airbag seat belt that was surprisingly comfortable.

One feature I particularly like about JAL’s premium economy seats: They’re in hard, immovable shells, so you’ll never be reclined into and won’t have to worry about reclining into another passenger. Instead, when you recline, your seat simply slides forward.

Since the seat slid forward when reclining, the distance between the front of the seat cushion and the magazine pouch on the shell ahead of me decreased from 19.5 inches to 12.5 inches. But I could partially recline to any point I wanted.

Each seat had a legrest that extended from the seat. Seats not at the bulkheads also had footrests that could be lowered from the seat in front.

I slept well for a few hours during the flight. The seats reclined substantially and were wide enough to allow me to sleep on my side.

The underseat storage area wasn’t large for most seats because of the armrest columns and seat support bars. Luckily, there was plenty of overhead bin storage.

You’ll want to book a window seat if you really need to put a larger bag under your seat, as these seats had the most underseat storage.

The bulkhead seats in Row 17, especially A, C, H and K, had essentially unlimited legroom — even TPG himself could’ve stretched out his legs in these seats. But these seats didn’t have footrests, and the table was in the armrest.

There were two lavatories ahead of the premium economy cabin and two between the two economy cabins. The bathrooms weren’t touch-free and seemed aged. Both sets of lavatories were stocked (and restocked throughout the flight) with a few packets of mouthwash and dental kits containing a toothbrush and toothpaste.

Amenities

At boarding, each premium economy seat had: a pillow, a plastic-wrapped blanket, an amenity kit in a plastic drawstring bag and plastic-wrapped noise-canceling headphones.

The pillow was the perfect size and consistency for a head pillow or lumbar support. The pillow was of good quality and covered by a fabric pillowcase.

The blanket was thin but proved to be soft and warm.

The amenity kit contained: a dental kit with a toothbrush and toothpaste, an eye mask, slippers and a shoe horn,  earplugs and a moisturizing mask.

The eye mask is perhaps the best I’ve gotten from any airline, including on business-class flights. It kept the light out, had two adjustable bands and also had a nose section. The moisturizing mask was a nice addition, since my sinuses always get dried out while sleeping on long-haul flights. It worked well, but the moisturizing sheet in the mask dried out after a few hours of use.

Strangely, no socks were provided. This wasn’t a problem for me, since I use compression socks on long flights, but it seemed especially strange because slippers were provided.

The over-ear, noise-cancelling headphones that JAL provided were certainly better than the earbuds I carry. The sound quality and noise canceling were pretty good, especially for premium economy. And the headphones weren’t collected before landing. Note that you’ll need a two-prong adapter if you want to use your own headphones, as otherwise you’ll only get sound in one ear.

A flight attendant came though the cabin with a selection of newspapers after boarding finished.

The IFE selection wasn’t the most inspiring. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time on planes watching shows and movies, but I struggled to find enough videos that I wanted to watch — and that’s with me spending much of the flight working instead of watching anything. Passengers could watch two live news stations during the flight, though.

Panasonic Wi-Fi was available on board. Various passes, including iPass and Boingo, were supposedly accepted, but when I tried to log in using the Boingo subscription that I had as a benefit of the Platinum Card® from American Express, I kept getting errors.

 

There were also three types of paid Wi-Fi passes available, from $10.15 for one hour ($9.15 with a JAL credit card) to a full-flight pass for $18.80 ($16.80 with JAL card).

I paid for a full-flight pass, but the Wi-Fi was impossibly slow on my laptop. When I connected my cell phone instead of my laptop, though, I was able to slowly load emails, Twitter and a few articles. I was able to run a speed test on my phone midflight and got 0.32 MBps download, 0 MBps upload and 863 ms ping. A speed test about an hour away from New York showed 0.34 MBps download, 0.02 MBps upload and 856 ms ping.

Food and Beverage

There were two meal services: dinner and an arrival meal. I’d previously checked out the menu on Japan Airlines’ website.

Physical menus were distributed 25 minutes after takeoff, and wet towels were handed out five minutes later. The meals served in the premium economy cabin were the exact same as served in the economy cabin — premium economy just had three additional beverage options (sparkling wine, shochu and sparkling water).

Drinks and rice crackers were distributed about 50 minutes after takeoff.

Dinner was served 55 minutes after the drink service, with a choice of hashed beef with butter rice or a baked-gluten-and-chicken rice bowl.

Flights attendants showed picture menus to passengers during meal service.

I chose the gluten-and-chicken rice bowl and found it surprisingly tasty despite having some chicken that wasn’t the best quality. The side dishes with both meals were a vegetable-and-cheese omelet and whitefish flavored with sesame and vinegar. Dessert was cherry confiture and chocolate mousse that was a great blend of bitter and sweet.

Small cartons of vanilla ice cream were served 35 minutes after dinner arrived. Green tea, black tea and coffee was served 15 minutes after the ice cream.

Dinner trays were removed 10 minutes after the coffee and tea. Shortly after the trays were removed, the cabin lights were dimmed. About 10 minutes later, the cabin was completely darkened.

The menu noted that udon noodles were available upon request in the middle of the flight, but I didn’t try it or see anyone else ordering it.

JAL partners with various Japanese restaurants to design versions of their meals as arrival meals. I’d tried Soup Stock Tokyo and Mos Burger on previous flights, so I was excited to see that this flight offered a meal from another Japanese chain, Yoshinoya. The Air Yoshinoya meal served on this flight consisted of a beef bowl, egg sauce, red pickled ginger and Japanese chili powder. This meal was served with coleslaw salad and fruit cocktail with nata de coco.

The meal was delivered at 4:32am, which ended up being just over two hours before landing. The beef and onion mixture looked fatty and oily but tasted much better than it looked. (I followed the instruction card and ate the beef and onions before pouring the egg sauce over the rice.)

In a galley between the two economy sections, a drink and snack station was set up for most of the flight. There were cartons of a JAL-branded kiwi drink, apple juice and water, as well as a well-stocked basket of chocolate, potato snacks, rice crackers and other snacks. There was also a flight attendant near the galley, so you could get anything else you needed from her.

Flight attendants also walked through the cabin every hour or so with drinks.

Overall Impression

Japan Airlines’ premium economy product isn’t designed to compete with business class. Indeed, premium economy gets the same service and food as economy class. But the premium economy seats have an impressive 41.25 pitch, substantial recline and are significantly more comfortable than economy for sleeping, working or lounging. Especially with relatively reasonable per-segment upgrade costs, the buy-up to JAL’s premium economy is certainly tempting.

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