So close to greatness: A review of Japan Airlines in a Boeing 787-9 in premium economy from Tokyo to Dallas
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An unbeatable ground experience. Industry-leading pitch with no need to worry about someone reclining into you.
Drinks and meals were almost the same as economy. I'm not the biggest fan of shell-reclining seats. Spotty Wi-Fi.
In each of my 13 economy Japan Airlines Dreamliner flights, I’ve passed through the premium economy cabins with longing. After all, the economy product on Japan Airlines’ Dreamliners feels more like a premium economy product than an economy experience, so I was excited to try JAL’s premium economy to see just how good it was.
So, to get back from Da Nang, Vietnam, at the end of a Cathay Pacific New Year’s Eve deal, I booked Japan Airlines premium economy back from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (SGN), to the Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) in the U.S. via Tokyo Narita (NRT) on Japan Airlines. Here’s what the experience was like.
At TPG, our first priority when booking review flights is to use points and miles, and TPG definitely redeems a lot of points for travel — 17.5 million Amex points in 2018 alone.
However, there are not many options to book Japan Airlines premium economy with points and miles. American Airlines just launched its first partner premium economy awards, but so far, it’s only for British Airways awards. Hopefully, AAdvantage will soon add the ability for members to book JAL premium economy award flights soon.
And sometimes cash is the way to go anyway, especially since TPG is able to effectively redeem Amex points at 2 cents each through the Centurion Card from American Express 50% rebate on Pay with Points. So we booked this international one-way premium economy flight for $1,243 from Ho Chi Minh, putting it on a the Platinum Card® from American Express in order to earn 5x points on flights booked directly through the airline or with the Amex travel portal
The upside of this cash fare was that we could earn a solid amount of AAdvantage Elite Qualifying Miles and Elite Qualifying Dollars. For the total booking, I earned 12,363 EQMs and 1,668 EQDs plus 18,334 award miles, worth $257 at TPG valuations, in part thanks to my AA status.
If you’re looking to try Japan Airlines premium economy yourself, look out for incredible deals through Amex’s International Airline Program. I’ve already booked my next flights in Japan Airlines premium economy for just over $700 round-trip from Los Angeles (LAX) to Singapore (SIN).
In addition to being able to enjoy a great product to a great destination, I’ll rack up 26,325 EQMs and 3,510 EQDs from that itinerary. That’s enough on its own for AA Gold elite status — or one-quarter of the way toward requalifying for Executive Platinum status.
My booking required an overnight in Tokyo, so I collected my bag and stayed at the airport’s capsule hotel. That meant that I needed to check in again the next morning for my flight from Tokyo to Dallas. At first, I tried checking in online, but I was unable to retrieve my reservation despite trying using both my JAL reservation number and my e-ticket.
Despite my issues online, I didn’t have any problems once I got to the airport. In Tokyo’s Narita, JAL premium economy passengers have a dedicated check-in area that isn’t shared with any elites.
Since there was a short line, I stopped first at one of the eight kiosks (two of which were out of order) to check in and print my boarding pass. I checked the seat map and found I was one of only a few people with an empty seat next to them, so there was no need to change seats.
The kiosk check-in was smooth, quick and even printed a tag for my checked bag. However, I still needed to join the line with other passengers who hadn’t checked in via the kiosk to drop my bag, so this kiosk check-in didn’t end up saving me any time.
At the end of the kiosk check-in, I was surprised to see that Japan Airlines planned to start boarding the flight just 20 minutes before departure. While I’ve seen JAL board aircraft efficiently in the past, this still seemed rather optimistic for a Boeing 787-9.
At the counter, there were five agents dedicated to checking in premium economy passengers. They made quick work of the passengers in front of me. In about two minutes, I was in front of a friendly agent. We would’ve flown through the bag-drop process, but I threw in a wrinkle.
Though my Japan Airlines one-way ticket terminated in Dallas/Fort Worth, I’d booked an American Airlines award via British Airways Avios from Dallas to Tampa (TPA) a few hours after arriving. So I asked, more out of curiosity than convenience, if I could check my bag through to Tampa.
Despite the agent’s efforts, she wasn’t able to get the bag to check through to Tampa. After trying for a while, she explained the system was showing a fee associated with the checked bag from Dallas to Tampa, and she wasn’t able to get my Oneworld Emerald elite status to waive the fee. She apologized earnestly, but it wasn’t a big deal. After all, I’d need to recheck after customs in Dallas either way. But I was appreciative of her attempts.
Thanks to incredibly efficient immigration and security, I made it from the check-in desk to the lounge entrance — clearing both security and exit immigration — in five minutes.
That’s right: the lounge entrance. And no, I didn’t get entrance due to my elite status. Japan Airlines premium economy passengers get access to a lounge before flying overseas.
This was my first time in the Tokyo Narita since JAL renovated its first and Sakura lounges, so I made sure to get to the airport early enough to enjoy both, first class via my Oneworld Emerald status and Sakura via premium economy ticket. I was impressed by both, but I’m going to focus on Sakura in this review.
It was expansive, with a number of seating areas stretched along the outside of the terminal.
Seats along the windows had solid views of the gates.
In the downstairs portion of the multistory lounge, there were two drink stations with juices, teas, sodas, draft beers (with refrigerated glasses), wines, an espresso machine and a whiskey-heavy liquor bar.
And, of course, there were lots of sakes.
Upstairs was where the food was, with a couple of separate hot and cold buffets with excellent choices.
I grabbed a light bite to eat.
There were a couple of relaxing rooms with beds and closing doors that could be reserved with a lounge agent.
There was a half dozen shower rooms that could also be reserved.
The Wi-Fi was easy to connect to and clocked in at 11.8 Mbps download, 38.8 Mbps upload and 7 ms ping.
Other amenities included a few dozen free self-serve lockers, a diverse newspaper and magazine selection and a room full of massage chairs, in addition to a couple of other massage chairs sprinkled through the lounge.
When I arrived at the gate 10 minutes before scheduled boarding and 30 minutes before departure, the gate was spotless and calm, and there were still plenty of empty seats and available power outlets. An announcement had been made that boarding had been delayed by five minutes to 10:40 a.m.
Just before the original boarding time of 10:35 a.m., passengers were welcomed to line up by group. After a graceful greeting from the gate agents, boarding began three minutes late at 10:38 a.m.
Incredibly, the flight finished boarding in under 20 minutes from the first boarding pass being scanned to the boarding door being shut. While the jet bridge was pulled back, the pilot explained that we needed to wait at the gate due to congestion at the airport. That congestion meant we didn’t take off until 50 minutes after scheduled departure, slightly delaying our arrival into Dallas.
My Global Entry entrance into the U.S. was a breeze, meaning I got to baggage claim just 15 minutes after the aircraft’s arrival at the gate. I was shocked to find my checked bag was already on the belt.
Cabin and Seat
Japan Airlines arranged its Boeing 787-9 premium economy cabin in five rows of a 2-3-2 arrangement.
This arrangement yielded a solid seat width just shy of 20 inches.
Rows were arranged with an incredible 42 inches of pitch. That’s industry-leading — there’s only a rare exception offering more. And it’s 4 more inches than the average premium economy seating arrangement.
And you didn’t have to worry about the seat in front of you reclining into your space. The fabric-backed seats were shell-style seats where the seat slid forward instead of the seat back reclining.
While I’m generally not a fan of reclining shell seats, I didn’t find these shell seats to be uncomfortable. And, as I was working most of the flight, I was especially appreciative that the seat in front of me couldn’t recline into my work space.
To help with the seat comfort when reclined, each seat had an extendable legrest.
Both the seat recline and the leg rest were controlled by buttons in the middle console.
Each seat not by the bulkhead had a simple, metal footrest. It wasn’t comfortable for me to use, but I understand that shorter passengers appreciate these footrests more than I do.
The headrest was adjustable up and down and had large wings to cradle your head when trying to sleep.
Between each seat was a small privacy shield and an individual reading light.
In the console between the seats in front, there were small pockets for each seat. They were convenient for storing my passport, boarding pass and phone.
The seat’s tray table folded down from the seat in front and extended, but awkwardly not far enough. The massive tray table measured just shy of 20 inches by 14 inches.
When the tray table was raised, there was a drink holder that could be popped out to hold a glass without you having to lower the tray table.
There was a single seatback pocket that was large enough to hold my laptop in addition to the magazines and safety card. Though it wasn’t large enough to hold much else, storage wasn’t an issue for me this flight.
Large overhead bins were plenty to handle all premium economy passenger bags, as well as the bags of economy passengers who decided to use these overhead bins during boarding.
And the large overhead bins were especially useful, as the under-seat storage was fragmented by the seat supports and a midseat console, particularly for aisle seats.
If you get stuck in a middle seat, one consolation is that you get a clear under-seat storage area.
There were four lavatories in the galley between premium economy and economy, with none specifically for the premium economy cabin. That meant the 35 premium economy seats and 116 economy seats shared the four bathrooms, averaging about one bathroom per 38 seats. Some, but not all, lavatories featured a bidet.
Amenities and IFE
At boarding, each seat was stocked with plastic-wrapped headphones, blanket, slippers, a shoehorn, pillow and an amenity kit.
The amount of plastic wrapping seemed wasteful.
Each was tastefully branded with Japan Airlines labels.
The Sony model MDR-5760 headphones had active noise-canceling and provided solid sound. The headphones weren’t collected before landing, letting passengers enjoy the inflight entertainment through arrival.
The amenity kit bag was a simple drawstring bag containing an eye mask, earplugs, dental kit and a moisture mask.
And, yes, it was actually a moisture mask. There was a moisture pack that you put in a mask to make the air you breathed less dry.
Each seat back had a 12-inch touchscreen with a fairly new and responsive user interface. The screen doesn’t tilt, but there was no need for it to, thanks to the shell seat.
The various menus had numerous duplicates of movies and TV shows, making it hard to tell just how many were available. My best guess is there were about 75 unique movies — 43 of which were labeled “Hollywood” — and 44 individual TV shows. That’s not exactly a limited selection, but it’s not nearly the number of entertainment options you’ll find on many flights nowadays.
The expansive pitch made the screen fairly far away, making the in-console remote useful.
Wi-Fi was powered by T-Mobile, and it wasn’t great. Connectivity was spotty to nonexistent for much of the flight. I wasn’t able to successfully run a speed test via most normal speed-test websites. When I was finally able to run a speed test via AT&T, the connection clocked in at 0.58 Mbps download, 0.21 Mbps upload.
There were no live TV options, tail camera, streaming entertainment or amenities available upon request.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Meals for Purchase
With boarding starting just 17 minutes before scheduled departure, it would’ve been tough for flight attendants to offer a predeparture beverage service. Not surprisingly, no drinks were offered.
While Japan Airlines meals are about the best you’ll find in economy, you don’t get much more for sitting in premium economy. The menu that was handed out shortly after takeoff specifically noted the three items that were for premium economy only, making it clear that almost all of the same food and drinks were also available in economy. Those three extra items were Champagne, Japanese shochu and sparkling mineral water.
Before lunch, flight attendants passed through the cabin to offer a full drink service. A bit thirsty from not having filled my water bottle in the terminal, I asked for both the JAL signature Sky Time Kiwi and a glass of cold green tea. The drinks were served with a bag of snack mix.
The menu noted that lunch would be served about one hour after takeoff, and the crew pretty much nailed that timing. The meal offered a choice between chicken-and-mushroom fricassee and spicy beef-and-tomato soup.
In addition to the handout menu, flight attendants handed passengers a menu with pictures of the meals as they served them out.
Having a fairly sensitive stomach right now, I steered clear of the spicy stew and chose the fricassee. In Japanese style, the main dish was complemented by a number of small side dishes.
Another full drink service was offered with the meal, so I ordered the Champagne. Instead of getting a glass of Champagne, passengers got an individual small bottle. The Champagne was a Vollereaux, which retails for about $40 for a 750 ml bottle.
As passengers were wrapping up dinner, the crew passed through to hand out small canisters of Haagen-Dazs ice cream.
Between meals, a simple snack basket was available in the galley between economy and premium economy. It seemed to be available to both cabins.
There were two snacks listed in the menu as available on request: gazpacho bread and “Udon de Sky.” I ordered the latter midflight and was disappointed to find it was just a Cup Noodles-style snack that was served with instructions to wait three minutes to let it finish cooking. When asked what I wanted to drink with it, I said sake. I ended up with the similar-sounding Asahi instead.
About halfway through the flight, the flight attendants flipped on the cabin lights and served a snack. The taste of the plastic-wrapped pastry wasn’t worth the calories or waking up from a nap for.
The arrival meal was served about two hours before landing. In a JAL tradition that I particularly appreciate, the meal was from a Japanese brand. Yoshinoya’s motto is “tasty, low-priced and quick,” and this meal lived up to those standards. The beef bowl helpfully came with instructions on how to prepare and enjoy it, and the main dish was served with sides of onion coleslaw salad and passion fruit jelly.
Flight attendants were friendly and accommodating, but seemed to lack experience and were overworked balancing economy and premium economy.
Service on this flight felt structured and almost mechanical. The young and seemingly inexperienced crew seemed to be going strictly by the book. This was especially evident when they started meal service almost exactly at an hour to departure — just as the menu said would happen. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it meant that the service wasn’t proactive or particularly warm.
That said, the flight attendants were eager to assist whenever asked, whether that was helping passengers with bags during boarding or when asked for a midflight snack or drink. When I tested pressing the call button, a flight attendant responded in under 30 seconds and retrieved a drink in under three minutes from the original call.
In many ways, Japan Airlines premium economy impressed. The ground experience in Tokyo was truly incredible, from a check-in desk reserved just for premium economy to business-class lounge access. On board, there was not much more that I could ask out of a premium economy seat, although I realize some passengers aren’t a fan of shell-type recliner seats. And while the flight attendants felt green, they helped out in any way they could when asked.
Though there was nothing negative about the experience, there were aspects that disappointed. The food and beverages matched what was being served in economy. While it’s excellent for economy, the meals and drinks didn’t impress for premium economy, and the meal services lacked the refinement I’ve found in other premium economy products.
Overall though, it’s an excellent product and a great way of flying transpacific — especially if you’re looking for a way to fast track earnings toward AAdvantage elite status. And with a little more focus on the soft product on board, it could be the best premium economy product available.
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