Not Quite as Good as Last Year: Japan Airlines in Business Class on the 777-300ER
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To complete my trip around the world, I decided to see if Japan Airlines’ business class really lived up to the hype. After all, TPG Reviews Editor Nick Ellis praised the hard product and the restaurant-quality food, so I was curious to see how my experience would compare a year later.
In fact, this product was even a nominee for the world’s best international business-class product at the first-ever TPG Awards in December, so I decided to fly six hours in economy from Bangkok (BKK) to Tokyo Haneda (HND) to position myself for the flight from Haneda to New York JFK in business.
What follows is my take on the product that scored 83 points last year.
JAL’s business class is within reach for most points-and-miles collectors. As it’s a Oneworld member airline, you can redeem American Airlines AAdvantage miles or British Airways Avios for this 6,772-mile flight. Since BA charges based on flight distance, you’re looking at 108,250 Avios plus applicable taxes ($168.93).
I’d definitely recommend using AAdvantage miles, if you have some lying around. They charge a reasonable 60,000 miles and $49.83 in taxes. Plus, you can now search for JAL awards on American’s website.
Another good way to redeem points for this flight is through is Alaska’s MileagePlan. If you want to replicate my booking, you can redeem 60,000 Alaska miles for this flight with minimal taxes ($62.03).
If you find yourself low on AAdvantage or Alaska miles, both programs frequently sell miles at a significant discount. With revenue tickets often topping $5,000 round trip, you could score a deal by purchasing Alaska miles at 1.97 cents each, which would equate to paying about $1,200 for the one-way flight.
JAL makes a good number of award seats available to partners when it opens its schedule 360 days before departure and then again within one or two weeks of the flight. You shouldn’t have too much of an issue finding award seats if you’re flexible.
Relative to the chaos that was Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, the check-in process at Haneda felt like entering a library. It was efficient, with just one person ahead of me in the dedicated business-class check-in line.
After the agent issued my boarding pass, a contract worker came by to ask a few security questions mandated by the TSA, such as when I packed my bag and whether I had accepted any gifts of behalf of someone else.
My AvGeek eye caught sight of a sign pointing toward an observation deck, and with plenty of time to spare, I decided to check it out. I braved the light rain to catch a glimpse of the international departure apron and runways 16R/24L in the distance.
Had the weather been better and the fence a bit lower, I would’ve spent more time up there, but instead I decided to head back inside to check out lounges.
I was surprised that JAL business-class passengers didn’t have access to the priority security lane, which was reserved for JAL first-class passengers and elite frequent flyers. Fortunately, there wasn’t much of a line, but this was certainly the first time I’ve been denied entry to priority security with a business-class ticket.
Once I was airside, my first stop was the Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge, on the fourth floor of the terminal near Gate 112.
The bilevel lounge was light and airy and featured a buffet of Japanese and Western foods.
As I was traveling alone, I found the luggage storage area to be useful. I locked up my bags as I explored the lounge and rest of the terminal.
The first floor featured two main sitting areas: one larger with mixed seating arrangements near the buffet and a smaller, interior overflow area. Both got very crowded as the morning bank of flights was scheduled to leave.
The breakfast buffet featured mostly Japanese dishes, including grilled mackerel, spicy seasoned cod roe and shrimp spring rolls.
There were plenty of showers and changing rooms on the first floor.
As the lounge got crowded, I transitioned to the more secluded area upstairs.
I preferred the various furniture arrangements there anyway, as I found them more conducive to working.
Once the upstairs and downstairs got packed, it was time to call an audible. I headed to the Cathay Pacific Lounge on the sixth floor near Gate 114, accessible to Oneworld first- and business-class passengers, as well as Sapphire and Emerald members.
This lounge was definitely smaller than JAL’s Sakura Lounge but was quieter and featured much better views.
I’m more of a carb guy anyway, so I certainly appreciated the signature Cathay Pacific noodle bar.
There was also a small buffet with healthier options like ratatouille, salmon escabeche and mixed fruits.
At 9:50am, I retraced my steps back to Gate 112, where my flight to New York-JFK was just getting ready to board. I joined the line and patiently waited until 10:10am, when boarding was promptly called, starting with first-class and Oneworld Emerald members.
Cabin and Seat
Japan Airlines features Apex suites on most of its flights to the US. The staggered configuration of these seats affords an incredible amount of privacy to window-seat passengers.
I was originally booked in an aisle seat, but I noticed that a passenger was upgraded to first class just a few minutes before departure, so I asked the gate agent to switch me to the window.
I lucked out, because the aisle and center seats felt quite dense and exposed.
If you’re looking for the utmost privacy, the one-row minicabin between first class and Door L2 is the place to sit. Otherwise, there’s a six-row cabin behind Door L2 with 42 seats.
My window seat, 7A, was in the bulkhead just behind Door L2.
My first impression of the seat was favorable, and it even felt a bit like a hard product that belonged in first class. I even had my own entryway that led directly to the aisle.
Furthermore, the extendable privacy divider added to the first-class feeling. With the privacy shield extended, I felt like I was in my own miniature suite.
The 75-inch bed was long enough to stretch out, and I loved that the 27-inch-wide and 14-inch-deep footwell was totally exposed, allowing me to adopt any sleeping position I wanted.
However, when I was awake, the seat felt cramped, since there really wasn’t a place to store any of my belongings. Aside from a tiny storage container behind my seat and two exposed counters (one under the TV and the other near the entryway to the seat), I couldn’t find a safe place for my loose belongings.
Although the aisle seats were definitely more exposed, they did have proper cubbies to store belongings.
The AC outlet and USB port were just by the entrance to the seat. Given the cramped space and lack of storage space, I continually knocked over my charging phone and laptop throughout the flight.
The intuitive yet worn seat controls were right next to the extendable privacy divider.
Overall, I found the entire cabin a bit dated. Turns out I was flying the same 16-year-old bird that Nick flew last year (which happened to be one of JAL’s first 77Ws).
As with most international airlines, there weren’t any personal air nozzles or overhead reading lights on this plane. You may want to dress lightly because Japanese airlines tend to keep the cabins quite warm.
The tray table extended from the right armrest, measured 19 inches wide by 12 inches long and easily twisted in case you needed to use the restroom during a meal service.
There were two bathrooms reserved for business-class passengers. They featured Toto toilets, Shiseido hand cream and facial mist, and dental kits and mouthwash.
Overall, I was impressed, but not blown away by this product. Sure, the quasi-suite was private and afforded me a good rest, but the lack of storage space was definitely noticeable. And if you’re not seated in one of the 14 window seats, then your seat experience may be somewhat worse (and definitely less private) than mine.
Amenities and IFE
I was definitely a bit more disappointed in JAL’s amenities and IFE than Nick was.
Like Nick, I also love a good pair of airplane slippers, so I definitely appreciated the slippers and shoehorn that were waiting at my seat upon boarding.
I wasn’t a big fan of the amenity kit, though. The Etro-designed pouch was lightweight and felt cheap. The contents were no more exciting. While I haven’t seen a moisture mask in an amenity kit before, the remaining contents felt bare-bones.
The 23-inch inflight-entertainment monitor was certainly large enough to impress, but the picture quality had me thinking that I was flying back to the 2000s.
Rather annoyingly, I couldn’t preview or select entertainment from the large TV monitor. Instead, I had to browse the available content on the 3.7-inch controller. Only after selecting my desired content would it display on the large screen.
Speaking of content, I also wasn’t super satisfied with the selection. Of the 60 movies, only a handful were new releases, like “Aquaman,” “Dumbo,” and “The Guilty.”
Things weren’t much better in the TV category. While there were episodes of “Friends,” “Sex and the City” and “The Big Bang Theory,” JAL featured two random episodes of each show, rendering it impossible to really get into a show.
If you could find something to watch, the provided Sony noise-canceling headphones were above average.
No one sent me a memo to BYO entertainment, so I instead slept for most of the flight. This is an area where JAL excels.
Each seat got a 1-inch-thick S-LINE mattress topper developed by Airweave, which provided comfortable support for an otherwise firm seat. The pillows (extras were distributed by the flight attendants) and blanket were also extremely comfortable. All of this combined to provide for an excellent eight hours of sleep.
I wanted to sleep longer, but the cabin was kept way too warm for my liking. I declined the JAL cardigan for that reason, as well.
Wi-Fi was available for purchase throughout the flight, but it was rather useless on my flight. I connected my phone once we crossed 10k feet and could barely access the internet throughout the flight. At least JAL charges based on time, as opposed to data usage.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
After reading Nick’s review, I was most excited for the “restaurant in the sky.” After all, the JAL menu highlights the airline’s partnership with not one, but six different top chefs.
Though I was definitely tempted by the Japanese menu, Nick reviewed it last year, so for the sake of diversity, I decided to give the Western menu a shot.
The first service began with an amuse-bouche of wasabi-sesame tofu and sweet corn flan topped with sea urchin. The flavors were incredibly unique, which I appreciated after six flight segments of basically the same flavor profiles.
I was impressed with the extensive drink menu, including multiple white and red wine options, as well as sake and local Japanese whiskies. I stuck with the tasteful and refreshing 2017 Albert Bichot Bourgogne Vieilles Vignes chardonnay.
The quartet of hors d’oeuvres were served nearly an hour after the amuse-bouche. Everything served was delicious and brought out flavors that I’d never before experienced in the air.
Clockwise from top right in the photo above is grilled sand borer with soy beans and yogurt, mustard-flavored chicken breast with green beans, steamed abalone with abalone liver sauce, and a pumpkin salad with pickled Japanese ginger. JAL didn’t forget about us carb-lovers, as the bread was by one of my favorites, Maison Kayser.
I had the option of selecting a wagyu beefsteak or seafood curry for my main, and I chose the latter. I was so excited when the aromas of the mixed seafood began wafting through the cabin. The dish tasted just as good as it smelled. The fish was such great quality that I’m pining for a trip back to Japan.
The dessert, a white sesame blancmange, was the most refreshing way to top off my dinner.
I fell asleep, stuffed from the dinner, but woke up with a pang of hunger about eight hours later. There was a small snack basket set up in the bar immediately behind Row 5.
Instead of choosing something packaged, I ordered a flavorful tagine-style couscous salad from the round-the-clock menu. There were plenty of other options, including noodles, sandwiches, desserts and other Japanese specialties like grilled eel or JAL’s signature chicken curry.
The most disappointing aspect of the food service came in the form of the Western breakfast plate, consisting of French toast and roast beef and crabmeat salad. The French toast was soggy, and the salad was bland and wilted.
Nonetheless, JAL continued to impress with its food-and-beverage program. All of it was delicious and much of it unique.
I came in with high expectations for the Japanese service and was left blown away by the personal attention and professionalism each flight attendant gave me. The flight attendants taking care of my aisle kept checking on me, ensuring that I was comfortable and enjoying my flight. They gave me extra pillows and made my bed when it was time for some shut-eye.
Throughout the meal service, they guided me through the menu with regards to my dietary restrictions and took their time explaining some of the choices that I’d never heard of before.
Rather annoyingly, JAL stops serving food two hours before landing. I was hungry, so I decided to wake up early to have breakfast. I then went back to sleep, only to be woken up an hour later to have my mattress pad collected.
None of this was the fault of the excellent flight attendants, but JAL should update its policy of suspending meal service at the same time as collecting mattress pads.
So, how was JAL business class one year later? Well, it depends.
The good news is that the restaurant-quality (Western) food and personal service haven’t changed since last year’s review.
On the other hand, the hard product is definitely showing its age. The IFE felt outdated and could definitely use an update. Though my window seat was incredibly private and comfortable, I needed more storage space for my belongings (and would’ve preferred a better placed AC outlet).
Nonetheless, JAL business class remains a great points-friendly option for crossing the Pacific and connecting onward in Asia. Bring your own entertainment and know that you aren’t stepping foot into a cutting-edge hard product, and you’ll be set for a great flight.
All photos by the author.
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