Japan Airlines long-haul review
Perhaps the best long-haul Economy Class in the world. Plus: Duty-free reflections, an adequate Haneda lounge, and more.
Although I like to think of myself as a somewhat seasoned air traveler, and while I have been to Japan a number of times, I had never until this past October flown on Japan Airlines. This changed when I flew to Tokyo for the Legacy Half Marathon. Here are my brief impressions and the odd vignette.
It’s all about the space
The best long-haul Economy Class flights are those where you have the most space. Indeed, what you are really buying when you fork out for Business Class — or Premium Economy — is not the catering, and certainly not the amenity kits, but the acreage. (And, at least with state-of-the-art Business, the resulting privacy.)
Usually, extra space in regular Economy means trying to get on flights that aren’t going to be full and then playing the game of trying to get an empty row or at least an unoccupied adjacent seat.
But there is one other way of getting extra space, and that is to choose an airline whose seating configuration at the back of the plane is more spacious than most. There are, sadly, few such opportunities. For example, virtually all operators of the B787 have nine-across seating, usually 3-3-3. And virtually all operators of the B777 now pack in 10-abreast with 3-4-3. In fact, 11-abreast is not unknown (though thankfully not common).
But a notable exception is Japan Airlines. It takes out one seat per row on both those aircraft — at least on equipment flown on major intercontinental routes — so that the B787 configuration is 2-4-2 (eight-abreast) and the one on the triple is 3-3-3 (nine). When Boeing first launched the 787, the default was planned to be eight-across. But few operators other than JAL stuck with that.
On my recent trip to Tokyo, I flew JAL in Economy Class on a B787 from LAX to Narita, and then back from the closer-in Haneda airport on the triple. Unlike more rigorous flight reviewers, I didn’t have a tape measure in hand, but my visual impression was that the middle seats got the bulk of the extra width, which is fair.
Regardless of seat width, two-abreast seating on the 787 is great for twosomes traveling together and can maximize the chance of a row to yourself when flying solo. Since Boeing stopped making the 767, two-abreast seating in the back of the plane has largely become a thing of the past on its aircraft. So JAL is keeping that flame burning.
That said, I’m not sure you really get the benefits of the extra JAL width unless it is a full flight. In other words, I don’t think it makes a very noticeable difference to most people if the seat next to you is empty (as it was on both of my flights). But if you are in a full row, it has got to help.
The JAL space advantage works on the other axis, too — legroom. Its standard configurations on the B787 and B777 offer 33-34 inches, compared with around 31 inches on most of its competitors. While most other airlines provide extra legroom in certain rows — and at a cost, unless, perhaps, you have elite frequent flyer status — JAL offers it throughout.
Space + service = excellent product
The sense — and mental expectation — of extra space helps creates a calming mood when you fly JAL economy between continents. But other aspects of the airline contribute to an excellent experience. I found the service on my two flights could not be faulted. Highly professional and helpful, without being obsequious. The cabins and bathrooms seemed spotless. I liked the signature maroon upholstery. And Economy passengers get frills like an amenity kit and metal cutlery.
The food was good enough. On the outbound, I recall it being nothing all that special (although I can’t recall the details, writing this a few weeks later). But the return was somewhat more interesting in terms of Japanese accents. And I loved the miso soup offered as a starter in both directions. Beer and wine were readily available for free.
JAL premium cabins can still be dated
Right now, the seating configurations on JAL’s premium cabins are less outstanding. Like many airlines, JAL is in a state of flux in its premium cabins. On the B777 on which I flew home, Business Class seating was a somewhat antiquated 2-3-2. And the Premium Economy cabin was 2-4-2 — meaning the center row actually had one more seat than in regular Economy (albeit a bit wider). Business Class on the B787 on which I flew likewise had an outdated 2-2-2.
So, as always with fleet-transitioning airlines, you may want to check out the specific configuration on a given flight before splurging with the big bucks. Right now, JAL is more remarkable relative to its competitors at the back of the plane than up front — at least in terms of the hard product.
So far, there is no indication that as JAL moves to offering a more up-to-date Business product, it will downgrade its Economy to industry norms. I hope that does not happen.
Duty feee and my “JAL original” belt
I find increasingly few airlines offer inflight duty-free sales. And I can’t say I miss it. Because cabin crew generally get commission on duty-free sales, the extra and sometimes even pushy announcements can be jarring (just like the annoying ones on U.S. domestic flights promoting airline-branded credit cards).
But it just so happened that in my haste to get on a dawn departure from Santa Barbara to LAX to connect with my Tokyo flight, I forgot — bleary-eyed — to put on a belt. I don’t need to wear a belt, but I’m used to doing so. Realizing my oversight when on my way, I checked out the options at the Bradley International Terminal at LAX. There were, indeed, belts for sale at the Coach and Tumi stores. But they were very expensive and simply not worth it — or even, in some instances, all that nice. So I was resigned to being belt-less on this trip, or to giving myself the mission of finding one in Tokyo.
But I then noticed a duty-free catalog in the seat-back pocket on board the JAL flight. It occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, JAL sold belts. And it turned out they did. There was a choice of two.
The one that caught my eye — the less pricey option (the other was a Bally) — was not especially inexpensive. But it was less than the ones at LAX and a good deal more interesting. Plus, not only was it made in Japan, it was billed as a “JAL original.”
So I had to buy it, although first I wanted to try it on to check it fitted. And this drew an audience of three giggling flight attendants. I sensed they did not sell many belts on their flights. The fit was fine and I wore the belt for the remainder of the flight and beyond. Later in the flight, another FA — I think the purser from up front — dropped by to admire it and thank me for the purchase.
Staff travel on JAL
As usual, I was traveling using inter-airline staff travel benefits earned by my wife. Some airlines never clear standbys when they check in, always keeping them on tenterhooks until the last minute regardless of load. And there can be reasons why that works to the staff traveler’s benefit, but that is a discussion for another day.
For now, I can report that JAL is one of those airlines that does clear standbys — and assign seats — at airport check-in if, realistically, there is no uncertainty as to availability. Online check-in is not available for non-revs, by the way.
What I don’t know is whether if loads were more iffy, I would have been made to wait around the check-in area or given a security pass to allow me to standby at the gate. Again, there are pros and cons to each approach, but that is for another post.
The one downside to non-revving on JAL is that it is hard to get reliable advance information on loads. JAL employees seem not to be very active on Staff Traveler, the crowd-sourced, load-sharing app beloved by airline folk non-revving on other metal. I had been checking a number of JAL flight options in terms of times and airport pairs, and generally got no responses — although there was the odd exception.
That aside, I’d rate JAL as pretty non-rev-friendly. It is more so than ANA, the other major Japanese airline. This is because on ANA, listing as a nonrev — with our airline at least — requires calling customer service and enduring what can be a very long wait on hold.
Tokyo airport and lounge notes
I had never flown in or out of Haneda before. It is much more convenient than Narita if you are going to central Tokyo and easy to get to and from using public transportation.
Although Haneda is often regarded as Tokyo’s newer airport, it is, in fact, the older one. Haneda Airport opened as Tokyo Haneda Airfield in 1931. But in 1978, most international flights were relocated to the newly constructed Narita Airport and Haneda became a domestic airport. However, that started to revert in 2010 when Haneda’s international terminal was opened. And today, Haneda somewhat eclipses Narita both domestically and internationally. For example, Delta no longer serves Narita, having moved all of its operations to Haneda. And American has scaled back heavily at Narita, including by closing its Admirals Club there. Keep in mind, though, that you may get better deals going into Narita, simply because the latter has become less favored on account of its far-out location.
I found Haneda efficient and easy to navigate. But the facilities are, perhaps, beginning to show their age a bit, though less so than at Narita.
There’s a reasonable, though not stellar, lounge at Haneda available for Priority Pass cardholders. Called the TIAT Lounge, this offers runway and ramp views with the Tokyo skyline in the distance. It was pretty crowded when I was there, but I snagged a good spot. Food and beverage options were just about adequate.
JAL and American are OneWorld partners and codeshare across the Pacific. If you are an Admirals Club member flying on American Airlines, you can use JAL’s reportedly excellent Sakura Lounge at Haneda even when flying Economy. Sadly, that is not available to Admirals Club members flying on JAL. However, if you happen to have AA Platinum status or higher, you can use the Sakura Lounge when flying JAL Economy regardless of whether you are also an Admirals Club member. (I have lifetime AA Platinum status, but it doesn’t work when non-revving.)
JAL offers a premium experience in regular Economy Class. It may well be the best long-haul Economy in the world. JAL’s front-of-the-plane premium cabins are showing their age on much of its fleet, but change is on the way. ✈️
Related post: Tokyo Legacy Half Marathon review.
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