There aren’t a lot of celebs in the biz travel space, but we found one of them!
Last month I noticed via social media that TripIt co-founder (and longtime TravelSkills reader) Scott Hintz was headed to Tokyo in first class on Japan Airlines using his American AAdvantage award miles. Knowing he has a very discerning eye, I asked if he wouldn’t mind taking some notes and reporting back to TravelSkills about his experience. Luckily, he obliged with an excellent post and a handful of photos. Thanks for this excellent reader report, Scott!
Some highlights of this report:
- Insider advice on finding award seats on AAdvantage partner airlines
- Some problems getting through security at LAX
- Review of the spacious and relatively empty Qantas lounge at LAX with 5-star dining
- No amenity kit or PJs in first class. Wait. What?
- Champagne, caviar…and Japanese pickles
- Speedy, cheap wi-fi relieves sleepless long-haul boredom
- A good, hard look at the first class lavatory
- Return from Haneda nonstop to SFO- meal service needs upgrade
Scott wrote, “I think the things where JAL is weakest would be pretty easy to fix, so I hope they address those items. I’d already give them an A- on this trip, but could easily see them becoming an A with a few minor tweaks.”
What worked and what didn’t? Read on!
(XIAN CONTEST! Thanks for all the entries to our contest for 2 United business class tickets to Xian! We are overwhelmed reading through all of them, but should have a winner chosen by the end of today. Stay tuned!)
I booked this trip using American AAdvantage miles, which at the time of booking required 62,500 each way (125k roundtrip). Booking that same award today would be 80,000 each way. I find that Japan Airlines releases award availability sporadically. A few months ago, they released a lot of award seats available across a wide variety of dates, but then that ended. Now, I tend to see them release empty F/J seats mostly within 7 days of departure, if they exist.
Since aa.com doesn’t display award availability for JAL, the best way to search for seats is to use the British Airways website. Just search for tickets using Avios as the form of payment, and if you find JL award seats via BA, then you can call AA and they should see the same availability and will be able to book it for you.
We were on JL 61 from LAX to Narita on the outbound (and were schedule to return on JL 62 from NRT to LAX on the return, but ended up switching to the HND-SFO nonstop, which I’ll explain more later). This flight is operated by a 777-300ER with 8 seats in first class. We selected seats 2A and 2D, which were the window and aisle seats adjacent to each other. We would have preferred two window seats (like 1A and 2A or 1K and 2K), but JAL seems to block seats 1A and 1K for pre-assignment. I’ve heard that they save those for people with very high status with the airline or VIPs and you can only get them by requesting them at the airport.
Unfortunately for us, both 1A and 1K were taken a few days prior to departure, so we just had to settle for our window and aisle. I wasn’t thrilled about being in the middle section with a stranger on the other side of the divider from me, but honestly, once on the plane, you had virtually no idea anyone was sitting next to you. The “suite” is large and the divider gives you plenty of privacy, so it really wasn’t a concern.
This flight left out of the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) at LAX, which is a beautiful space with great shopping, restaurants, and lounges. Unfortunately, the security situation there is terrible. This is my third time flying out of TBIT as an originating passenger and I’m still amazed how bad the security situation is. There is no TSA Pre-Check in this terminal, which sort of makes sense since foreign airlines can’t participate in TSA Pre, but if you are flying an AA domestic flight out of this terminal, you technically quality for Pre, so it’s too bad it’s not offered. There is a special line for first and business class passengers (but not for elites flying coach, as far as I can tell), but in my experience, that line isn’t always open. I had a 9am flight to MIA recently and there was no line for premium pax, so I had to wait almost an hour to get through security.
On this trip, the first/business class line was open, but it still took us almost 45 minutes to get through security. There were a lot of people trying to get through, but only 3 scanners operating (I think they have about 8 or 9 scanners in total, so clearly they need to increase staffing and improve throughput). Once you get to the front of your queue (economy or first/business), a staffer then assigns you to a specific security lane. I would suggest people try to avoid the first lane, because that’s also where crew, airport employees, and passengers rushing to catch a flight leaving soon will all be allowed to cut to the front of the line. So that first lane moves a lot more slowly than the others.
It seems that AA operates flights to AUS, ATL, MIA, and other destinations out of this terminal. I’m really surprised they put the premium MIA route of here and force those passengers, in particular, to endure the sub-par security experience in TBIT. If I was flying AA out of LAX going forward, even if that flight was departing from TBIT, I think I would go to terminal 4 and use the Pre-Check lane, then use the new connector to walk from Terminal 4 to TBIT (where you won’t have to clear security again). The other advantage of this approach is that AA has an Admirals Club in T4, but not in TBIT — and you won’t be allowed to use the Oneworld lounges in TBIT unless you are traveling internationally.
In LAX, JL has first class customers use the Qantas First Lounge, which was excellent. Our flight was departing LAX at 1:20pm and there aren’t many Oneworld international departures at that time, so the lounge was also delightfully empty. It’s a very large space, so it’s hard to imagine that it would ever be that full, actually.
While the lounge didn’t have a spa with free massages a la VS, BA, EY, etc., nor hip music and lighting with waiters bopping around the lounge like VS, it did the basics very well. There’s a long, beautiful bar along the entire back of the lounge that serves anything your heart could desire. The seating is plentiful and comfortable. The overall design of the lounge is quite nice and just a joy to be in.
But we found the highlight to be the sit-down restaurant with full waiter service. The menu, service, and food all felt like dining in a true 5-star restaurant in any major city. Kudos for Qantas for a job very well done.
When we got to the lounge, they told us that boarding would begin at 1:00 — which struck us as awfully close to the 1:20 departure time. Just to be safe, at around 12:55, we started to gather our things and head out of the lounge, and it was only as we exited at 1:00 that they made the first boarding announcement for our flight. It was probably about a 7-8 minute walk to the gate from the lounge, so that sounds very tight, but it made a little more sense once we got to the gate and saw that JL does a great job of giving F customers an easy boarding experience. They have clear signage for both F and J passengers, with dedicated jetways for each.
We breezed right onto the plane and directly into the F cabin. Since J and Y pax used different doors, we never saw another passenger other than those in the F cabin. It felt peaceful and relaxing, much different from the typical domestic boarding experience! A cabin attendant was there waiting to greet us as we boarded the plane and showed us to our seats.
The purser quickly came over and introduced herself, made a real effort of letting us know her name (pronouncing it slowly and pointing to her name tag so we could see it in writing) and letting us know that she was there to help in any way needed. Her colleagues in the F cabin were very quick to take and hang our jackets, offer us pre-departure beverages, show us a few features of the seats, and offer any help we needed. We felt very welcome and I could tell we were going to have a great crew.
Waiting at our seats were Bose headphones, slippers, a pillow, and a blanket. The blanket was more like the kind of thing you’d put on your lap while watching TV, not the duvet you were meant to sleep with (which was distributed later after takeoff). A flight attendant came by and gave us menus — in this case, they just gave us the printed menu directly, while on our return flight, it was inside a large leather portfolio, which also included a pamphlet for duty-free shopping and a landing card for the U.S.
To my surprise, neither an amenity kit nor pajamas were waiting for us on our seats nor were they distributed prior to departure. I thought maybe it was an oversight, but the same thing happened on our return, so I’m assuming that’s JL’s standard way of doing things. But I just asked the flight attendant for both and they were happy to oblige immediately. The pajamas were great — I think my favorites among all the ones I’ve received on other airlines (EY, BA, CX, AA). I took a large on the first flight and a medium on the return and I think the M was actually a pretty good fit, which surprised me since I’m almost 6′ tall and I figured an Asian airline might run small. Since returning home, I’ve washed both sets of pajamas and neither shrank very much and they held up very well.
The amenity kit was also pretty good. It came in a nice, soft case with a zipper and included eyeshade, earplugs, a moisture mask, lip balm, dental kit, tissue, cologne, and brush. In addition to that, the flight attendant gave me a separate case of products specifically for a man, which was Shiseido brand — cleanser, moisturizer, and hydrating lotion. That came in a nice, hard-sided case which I could easily see being used to store sunglasses in the future. Compared to other airlines I’ve flown in F over the past few years, JL is probably my favorite among amenity kits.
Initial impressions of the seat were fine — nothing great, nothing bad, just right in the middle. The dark brown leather is pleasing enough, but nothing special. The 23″ monitor is quite nice and made for good movie watching. Aside from that, you had the basics of a power outlet, lighting controls, and a handheld controller for operating the entertainment system. The monitor is actually a touch screen, so you can operate it that way, as well, but it’s so far away that it’s hard to reach the screen. However, the handheld controller didn’t work very well — it’s so small, it’s hard to touch the tiny buttons on screen and navigate the complicated user interface. And it didn’t seem very responsive to touch, either. So I would often unbuckle my seatbelt and just lean way forward to touch the monitor itself.
Despite beginning boarding pretty late by my standards, we left pretty much right on time. Since I couldn’t see back in J or Y, I don’t know how full the flight was, so it’s hard to say how they boarded such a large plane so quickly, but they did it. Taxi was relatively short and we were in the air quickly after departure. And the captain turned off the seatbelt sign very quickly — I didn’t time it, but it felt like about a minute after takeoff. We also noticed that the seatbelt sign stayed off for the entire flight, even though we had light turbulence for at least half the flight.
The flight attendants also began meal service very quickly, coming through the cabin to take orders while we were still climbing in altitude. I very much appreciated how quick all of this went down, which would have been especially great on a night flight where you want to get to sleep right away (which was the case on our return from HND, which departed at midnight). The flight attendants spoke good English and were very helpful in discussing the menu, offering suggestions and asking if we wanted to sample something that we weren’t familiar with.
We both had the Japanese menu and enjoyed it. Neither of us are connoisseurs of Japanese cuisine, so we don’t have a lot to compare it to, but we liked it. We didn’t really know what some of the smaller appetizer dishes were, and one or two of them seemed a little odd, but that’s probably just because we’re not used to Japanese food beyond sushi. I had the steamed bass as an entree and it was incredibly good — one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever had on a plane. Moist, flavorful, and served warm with perfectly cooked rice and Japanese pickles. Yum.
While eating the meal, I perused the entertainment selection and was a little underwhelmed. It was ok, but the selection of movies and TV shows wasn’t as extensive as other airlines I’ve flown. They did have a lot of Japanese and other Asian content, but western options felt somewhat limited. I also noticed that the seat wasn’t super comfortable for lounging. It doesn’t move in a million different directions, as some other airlines’ seats do, and the padding was pretty firm. I just had a hard time adjusting things to the point where I was really comfortable.
After the meal, flight attendants asked if we wanted to have our beds made, and we said yes. JL offers aTempur-pedic “mattress” that they put down on your seat, with one side being firm and the other being soft. I selected soft, went to the lavatory, and returned to find my bed nicely made up. While it was comfortable, I will say that the bed is where I think JL could improve a fair bit. As mentioned above, the seat itself is pretty firm, but unfortunately the “soft” side of the mattress didn’t help much. Also, the mattress is just a thin layer of material — picture something along the lines of a yoga mat — and doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that gets cleaned in any way. Maybe I’m wrong, but I didn’t see any way to remove the outer cover, so I’m not sure how they would even clean them. So it felt a little weird laying directly on top of it. My suggestion would be to lay a thin sheet down on top of the mattress and it would be a lot nicer. Also, the duvet was large and thick, but the pillow was shockingly small. It felt more like something they’d hand out in coach, not first.
I wasn’t able to get comfortable, which may have a lot to do with not being able to sleep. It’s also a challenge on a flight leaving at 1:20pm to fall asleep until the final hours of flight. Unfortunately, since the entertainment selection was so limited and the few big Hollywood movies they had, I had already seen, I found myself just laying there feeling pretty bored for a few hours. So I decided to check out the wifi on board, and I’m glad I did. It’s only $19 for unlimited internet for the entire flight, or $14 for 3 hours (there are other pricing plans, too, but those seemed like the best deals). I chose the 3 hour plan and was really happy with how fast and stable the connection was. I was able to do a lot of reading, emailing, checking Facebook, etc. A great way to the pass the time or get some work done.
There is a mid-flight menu where you can order snacks at any point if you get hungry, so I eventually did order some noodles. Flight attendants didn’t come through the cabin very often, but if you pressed the call button at your seat, they would show up instantly and were smiling and happy to help. It took about 10 minutes for the noodles to be ready and they were delicious.
I should mention that when the flight attendant took my lunch/dinner order after takeoff, she also asked me if I wanted to be woken for a meal prior to landing, and if so, at what time. I thought that was a nice touch and I told them I’d want to eat 90 minutes before arrival. Although I never fell asleep, the flight attendant did come by promptly at 90 minutes prior to landing to ask if I’d like to have the meal. I ordered a few items from the a la carte menu, the highlight of which was the seafood curry, which was warm and comforting. The beef skewers were forgettable, while the green salad was good (as good as can be for a simple salad).
Also, a few comments on the lavatory. There are actually two lavs you can use in the F cabin, so with only 8 passengers max, you rarely have to wait (I think one of the lavs might be for crew, but they let F pax use it if the other one is occupied). Both lavs are pretty modest, fairly small and basic, but perfectly functional. I was actually surprised that there were no products in the lavs — no face spray, no hand lotion, nothing besides a few dental kits. This is the first time I can recall ever flying in a J or F cabin and not having at least some hand lotion. This wouldn’t be so bad if the amenity kit included hand lotion, but it didn’t — it had a facial moisturizer, which of course can be used on hands, but I’m really surprised there was no proper hand cream anywhere on the plane as far as I could see. Also, the handsoap in the lav is something you pump out of the metal “soap” lever that’s part of the sink. This also felt very basic, like something you’d expect to find in a public restroom at a baseball stadium; whereas I usually find a nice plastic bottle of some kind of fancy designer soap attached to the top of the basin on other airlines.
While I didn’t use it, the toilet did have the typical Japanese set of controls that seemed to warm the seat and offer a variety of water jets and sprays. Also, one thing that I really appreciated and don’t think I’ve seen on other carriers were two tables that folded down from the wall. One descended to floor level and you could step on it once you took off your slippers, so your bare socks wouldn’t have to touch the (presumably dirty) floor as you changed into your pajamas. The other one was more at waist level and was a convenient place to set your clothing as you changes (avoiding the need to place it in the sink area, where it could be wet).
Finally, although the F cabin is pretty segregated from the rest of the plane, I did manage to peek through the curtain into the business class cabin in the middle of the flight. My first impression was that it looked nice. The seats seemed what you’d expect in J, but I really liked the staggered layout that would make it easier to get in and out of a window seat without having to climb over the person next to you.
As the crew prepared the cabin for arrival, they came around and thanked us for flying them with another round of very warm smiles. The crew really was fantastic on this flight, one of the best I’ve had flying internationally.
Although we left right on time, we didn’t arrive in Narita early. It seems that headwinds were stronger than usual, so that extended flying time. That was a benefit on the return flight, as we left on time, but arrived into SFO over an hour early.
Exiting the plane was quick and easy, followed by a reasonable walk to immigration and customs. What surprised me, though, was that F passengers didn’t get any kind of special fast-track lane for immigration. There was one lane with a “priority” sign above it, but I asked an employee if we could use it as F passengers, and they said no. So I don’t know who gets to use it, but apparently F and J pax stand in the same long lines as everyone else. And it was a somewhat lengthy wait, around 30 minutes to clear immigration. The queue was noisy, stuffy, and just generally felt a little chaotic, so I’m really surprised JL hasn’t arranged something special for at least F pax.
Our return was supposed to be NRT-LAX-SFO, as the nonstop HND-SFO didn’t have award seats available when we originally booked. But I checked again while in Tokyo and saw that four award seats had opened up, so I called AA to make the change. That flight leaves HND at midnight, so we enjoyed a full final day in Tokyo before departing the hotel around 9:30pm for HND. As most people know, HND is a lot closer to central Tokyo than NRT and you can easily take public transport there (a roughly 30 min subway ride from Ginza for about $5 as compared to a two-hour bus or train ride at around $30 from NRT).
We were surprised to find that AA doesn’t consider NRT and HND to be co-terminals, so they do charge a $150 change fee to change airports in Tokyo. Here’s hoping AA changes its policy on that.
The return flight itself was uneventful, very similar to the inbound flight except for a few minor details. However, I will say that we were very unimpressed with the JAL First lounge at Haneda. I’ve read glowing reviews of it online from when this new lounge opened in 2014, so I was surprised at how lackluster it felt in our experience. It would have been an OK business class lounge (not great, just OK), but definitely did not feel like anything special for first class. In particular, the food situation was very disappointing. Not only is there no table service, but the self-service buffet (including trays that felt almost right out of a high school cafeteria) was small and the food unappealing.
There was no bar (and of course, no bartender), but rather just a few self-serve bottles of wine and spirits. In fact, there wasn’t even any bottled water — there was only a pitcher with the word “water” on it in the refrigerator. I did see a worker at one point refill that pitcher with a large plastic bottle of Evian, but had I not seen that, I would have assumed it was just tap water. At one point, I walked over to the business class lounge to check out the food there, and realized it was exactly the same, with one small exception. The first class side includes a chef who is cooking teppanyaki (think along the lines of a Benihana restaurant) to order. That sounds nice, and it was ok, but nothing really special. The beef he cooked could have just as easily been sitting in a warmer on the buffet line and I wouldn’t have known any difference.
Since we were departing at midnight, my original plan was to eat in the lounge and then sleep right away once on board, but clearly that wasn’t going to pan out. The food selection in the lounge was so lackluster, I barely ate anything and figured I would just have a meal on the plane. Or so I thought. I was shocked when we boarded that the menu only included a very limited “late night snack” service with a few measly food options. I just had some noodles and tried to get some sleep, still feeling hungry.
Unfortunately, things didn’t improve prior to landing — again, much to my surprise, the meal they serviced prior to arrival was breakfast. I can’t quite figure out the logic of that, as we were landing in San Francisco at around5pm local time, which should be dinner. Granted, it would be around 9am in Tokyo, which I suppose could justify breakfast, but shouldn’t it be based more on local time? Especially since the departure meal was so light, you’d think they’d give you a heavier meal on the other end. I really think JL should re-consider the meal service on this flight, as it was a big let-down.
We had a very good experience on JAL. They do some things great (boarding experience, LAX lounge — although it’s operated by Qantas, attentive and friendly crew, amenity kits/pajamas, great wifi), and there are a few misses (HND lounge, meal service on night flight, entertainment selection). Overall, a very solid experience and I’d be happy to fly them again. I also have a feeling their business class product on the 773 is pretty good and I’d be willing to give that a try in the future.
NOTE: Be sure to click here to see all recent TravelSkills posts about: United’s newest, longest flight + Tipping Uber drivers + Qantas 747 Trip Report + Confusion over PreCheck policies + No-fee earlier flights