Review: JAL Business Class • NRT-JFK

Review: JAL Business Class • NRT-JFK


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This post is part of Project Pacific Circle, a journey of more than 25,000 miles from Orlando to Los Angeles, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan.

Along the way, I flew on some of the world’s best airlines and shared my thoughts on the ground and in the air. The cash cost for the airfare alone would have been well more than $17,000. Using miles and points, however, I knocked the cost down to around $500. Learn how to travel like I do with PointsAway: The Definitive Guide To Free Flights & Nights.

My long trip was coming to a swift end, but not before taking my longest flight yet. Clocking in at 13 hours and 5 minutes, the 6,728 mile jump from Tokyo to New York JFK would get me almost all the way home. Only a comparatively brief 3 hour flight on JetBlue from JFK to Orlando would remain, and Project Pacific Circle would be complete.

An Unsuccessful Audible

I’d actually tried to change this flight in the final days before takeoff. Set to take off around 6PM, I liked the timing for this flight but wasn’t a huge fan of the hard product it would entail. Sure, it would be my first flight on a 787, but it also meant I’d only get to try out JAL’s Shell Flat Neo seat.

Image courtesy: JAL

These are batched together, 2-2-2 across the cabin and didn’t appear to be particularly comfortable. Sure, the seat could recline into a bed, but it was certainly angled, and I was worried about whether I’d be able to sleep in the seat on such a long flight given seats with similar recline on earlier flights had only allowed for a quick nap or two.

This is the epitome of a problem most people would kill to have, for sure, but I was enticed by the alternative. JAL’s Sky Suite Business Class seats do lie fully flat, offer aisle access to each passenger and serve as a completely enclosed cube, great for sleeping and not worrying about a snoring neighbor.

Image courtesy: JAL

Even more enticing was JAL’s First Class JAL Suite. Building on the enclosed space concept Sky Suite brings to the table, these seats are much wider, padded with luxurious leather, have a massive in-flight entertainment display and lies flat into an even more luxurious bed.

Image courtesy: JAL

These seats are only available on some of JAL’s 777s, though. To make a change in itinerary, I’d either need to leave Tokyo that morning and spend a whole day waiting around at JFK or fly through Los Angeles and see if I could stitch together some American award availability to get me all the way back to Orlando, letting my JetBlue ticket go to waste.

I figured availability might open up in the days before these flights were scheduled to depart and sure enough, it did. I could’ve flown Business or First Class on JAL into Los Angeles, but American still didn’t show any reasonable path home from there.

So, I stuck with the plan, still excited to check out a Dreamliner for the first time and to see how JAL’s service stacked up to my other exceptional flight experiences so far on the trip. Besides, a routing through LA would have change the shape of my trip, collapsing most of the circle! Here’s how the flight turned out:

Introducing The 787

After an incredible stay in the Sakura Lounge, I made my way to the flight. One of the first things you might notice with the 787, from the inside in particular, is how massive the engines look in comparison to the composite wings, with a swoop back angle unique to the Dreamliner that makes them appear rather thin and fragile.

Another unique feature of the 787 is its electronically controlled windows. Rather than physical shades, windows can be made electronically darker or lighter by use of a couple buttons below the window. It’s a delayed effect and even at its darkest doesn’t block out nearly all of the light coming in, but even if it’s bright outside, the windows get dark enough to allow most people to not be bothered when trying to nap.

Cabin humidity on the 787 is also greatly improved, and can be increased to 15% versus 4% on legacy aircraft. Internal cabin pressure can be kept at 6,000 feet instead of 8,000 feet. Cabin air pressure is driven by electric compressors, while older planes shove engine-bleed air through air conditioners before shooting it into the cabin. These may not sound like tremendous accomplishments, but you’d be surprised; we’ll return to this later.

All-LED lighting is also a nice upgrade versus traditional aircraft. It allows cabin crew to adjust lighting to various colors and levels of brightness and to gradually increase or decrease brightness. This leads to a much gentler wake-up call when it’s nearly time to land than when the harsh glow of fluorescents suddenly flickers on above you on other planes.

Nuts & Bolts

The Neo Shell Seat basically matched what I’d expected from my pre-flight research.

I was in a bulkhead seat, though, which meant the in-flight entertainment system swung in and out from a center console on a sturdy metal support column. The system had a healthy selection of movies and TV shows, including both new releases like Frozen and Divergent and some favorites from recent years like Pirates Of The Caribbean.

The extra legroom from being in the bulkhead would come in handy, it turned out: even with the beds fully extended, it was more possible for me to hop from my window seat to the aisle without disturbing my seatmate than it would have in one of the back seats.

Business Class was broken into two segments, since there’s no First Class offered on JAL’s 787s. There were 18 seats up front spread over three rows; I was against the second bulkhead in 7A, the first of four rows. In total, there were 42 Business Class seats on this flight. At least two-thirds were full for the flight and a peak back into Economy made it clear it was near capacity, as well.

The seat featured three preset positions: upright, relax and bed. In addition, plenty of options allowed for tweaks of individual portions of the seat.

For example, I found the relax preset worked well for watching movies if I then brought the headrest up a bit more. I massage feature similar to the ones found on LAN and Cathay Pacific was available, essentially moving the lumbar support system up and down and in and out. It wasn’t super useful, but fun to try a couple times.

Each seat had its own power outlet as well as a dedicated USB slot.

Noise-canceling headphones were also provided. These were powered, unlike some other noise-canceling sets I’d had on other flights, which made a significant difference. They weren’t on par with Bose’s industry-leading QuietComfort headsets, but were certainly a step in the right direction. However, the volume was disappointingly low on the headsets. If they could get just a bit louder, watching movies or listening to music could almost totally block out the ambient noise from the flight.

Food & Drinks

JAL actually posts their menus online for each flight. Here’s a copy of the menu from which I selected.

I chose the Western option for the main dinner, which began with an amuse-bouche of garlic shrimps and corn mousse with sea urchin and consommé jelly. The garlic shrimp were outstanding. The corn mousse was interesting and fairly tasty, having not tried something quite like it before.

Next up was a salad served with a roll and breadstick. I appreciated the little container of sea salt that came along with this course, as it was a good addition to the butter for the breadsticks.

I also sprinkled some on the main course, served right on time:

The sirloin wasn’t fantastic, but airline steaks rarely are. It was a good piece of meat helped out substantially by the ginger sauce drizzled on its top. The purser actually served me and my seat mate for much of the flight, and I took her recommendation of their Matahiwi Mt. Hector Pinot Noir from their menu of beverages to go with it. I’m not normally much of a wine drinker but enjoyed this enough to ask for a refill. Even better was the vanilla ice cream served as a dessert:

Later in the flight, after sleeping for quite a while, I requested the udon noodles from their “Anytime You Wish” menu. Passengers may order from these selections anytime until 90 minutes prior to landing. Selections include the udon noodles, ramen noodles, a chicken curry from Tokyo Curry Lab, a shrimp cutlet sandwich and more.

I asked for a Coke to go along with the noodles, since I didn’t plan to sleep anymore with landing a couple hours away. I had my TV screen out and my seat mate was still asleep, so the purser had a challenge in trying to place the soup and glass of Coke on my tray table.

The can of Coke just touched the bottom of my display unit and spilled over, mostly on the tray but with a bit landing on the tray table. She’d thoughtfully brought a hot towel out before bringing out the meal, and so I quickly used it to sop up what little soda had spilled onto the table.

I was totally dry, but she was horrified to think she might have spilled any on me! I was afraid she might cry, she was so upset, so did my best to reassure her. She took the tray back and redelivered it a few minutes later, still apologizing profusely.

Aside from this total non-incident, in-flight service was outstanding through the whole flight. I’m not sure why we got the special selection of being served by the purser directly, but she was extremely attentive and kind the whole time, always remembering my name.

About an hour later, I noticed some of the other attendants were beginning to bring out the true second meal service. I ordered mine in the nick of time, looking forward to trying out one more meal before landing. I ordered the Japanese Set Plate this time, designed by Fumiko Kono, a renowned Japanese chef with a restaurant in Paris. This included clear soup, steamed rice and Wagyu beef, along with an assortment of vegetables.

The Wagyu beef was served with a ginger sauce to dip or spread on top and was absolutely phenomenal. I wish there’d been more than just a few pieces, because it was the single best portion of a meal I had on a flight for the whole trip.

Sleeping Away The Flight

Thick blankets and pillows were waiting at each seat upon boarding. Comfy pajama tops were distributed after takeoff. There were no amenity kits provided; instead, an attendant made her way around with a basket from which passengers could choose items like eye moisturizers and toothbrushes.

I was shocked by how much sleep I got on this flight, a little more than six hours in total. That’s way more than I managed in more comfortable seats on flights like Fiji Airways or Thai. I think this is due to a few factors: one, the meals and drinks were quite good, as discussed above, making it easy to take an after-dinner snooze. Two, changing into a snug pajama top made a surprising difference versus sleeping in my polo shirt, even if I was still wearing jeans.

Most important, however, was the plane itself, in my opinion. I really think the higher humidity, better quality of in-cabin air and higher pressure made a tremendous difference.

I’m used to living in a seemingly 10,000% humidity climate at sea level, so spending hours and hours at high altitude and low humidity can lead to dehydration and discomfort. Plus, you all know how airplane air can seem stale. Pumping air in separately rather than cooling down hot discharge air from the engines made a big difference in that regard.

Thanks to the amount of sleep I got and the improved climate conditions of the plane, this 13 hour flight felt easier and a little quicker than a six hour flight to London from JFK I’d taken last fall.

Final Thoughts

In retrospect, it’s hard to believe I even thought about changing this flight. The service was phenomenal, the hard product was perfectly acceptable and the improved cabin conditions of the 787 made sleeping possible despite the seat not truly lying flat.

That said, this flight made me want to try out the JAL’s Sky Suite or First Class Suite even more. For such a long flight to be so comfortable on their lower-end product, I can only imagine how much better either would be!

In total, this flight set me back 50,000 American miles miles and $43.10. The cash price would have been an unthinkable $7,087.80, making this flight by far the single biggest savings of the whole trip.

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About PointsAway
Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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