*** Please see the bottom of this review for an update.
I was very excited a few years ago when Japan Airlines started non-stop service between San Diego and Tokyo Narita Airport using the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Finally, a few months ago my wife and I were lucky enough to fly on this route. This review will be for both SAN to NRT and onward to Bangkok. Both planes were 787-800’s so the seats and cabin layout were the same, however, the service was slightly different.
Check-in at San Diego was relatively quick despite a little bit of a line. There are only a few agents working the flight, and one dedicated to Business Class, but if a passenger was waiting in the Business Class/Priority line, another agent would sometimes take them next. The agent warned us that there was a potential for bad weather in Tokyo and our connecting flight could be effected. Not exactly what I wanted to hear when we had a series of flights and destinations we were visiting in Thailand and beyond. Luckily, while the weather was bad in Tokyo, making our connection was not an issue.
Passengers flying in Business Class on JAL (and OneWorld Sapphire and Emerald members) can access the AirSpace Lounge (former Admirals Club) in San Diego. The lounge is still part of American’s lounge network, and is brand new, but as an Admiral’s Club member I am disappointed in their food (or lack thereof) offerings. However, when flying JAL (or British Airways) you are given vouchers for free food and free alcohol. A nice surprise.
The announcement to board was a little late and we waited for some additional minutes at the gate area. Since we only had a one hour connection in Narita I was starting to get a little nervous. While boarding was a little late, it was quick and efficient once it started. Business Class was boarded first and I think the entire plane boarded in 20 minutes. It was interesting as we walked down the jetway how warmly we were greeted by a few SAN Airport officials. As there are only two major international flights out of SAN, it showed how important they are. As we boarded the Dreamliner we were again warmly greeted by the flight attendant and she showed us to our seats. At the seat was a blanket, pillow, Tumi amenity kit (no socks, but menthol stick, moisture mask, eye-shade, tissue and earplug), slippers, and bottle of water. There was no pre-departure drink offered which was a little surprising, but a flight attendant did come around to introduced herself and went over the service. All of the crew spoke English to varying degrees. Newspapers, and a pajama/cardigan top were offered before take-off. The cardigan was too small, but I still wore because it made my wife laugh and I have been known to spill on myself as I eat 🙂
Having flown on United’s 787’s a few times ( http://patstravelreviews.com/united-airline-787-dreamliner-businessfirst-review/ ) I knew what to expect from the aircraft. Nonetheless, I was still impressed. The LED lighting is great and the overheads are very generous (even the center overheads could hold a standard carry-on), as are the windows. It takes some getting used to that there are no shades, but it is great to be able to still see out the window even when the window is at it’s darkest setting (completely cuts outside light). This really helps when other passengers are sleeping and you want to enjoy the scenery (or vica versa).
JAL does not have First Class on their 787’s and has recently introduced a new lie-flat seat (Sky Suite, this version is called Seasons) on the 787’s (both the 800’s and 900’s). This aircraft had the older, angle-flat seats. They are not old by any stretch of the imagination as the plane is at most two years old. But it was surprising (and there were many complaints) that on this new aircraft that JAL opted for angle-flat seats instead of lie-flat seats when most airlines were upgrading to lie-flat. So if lie-flat is very important to you, then you may want to see what configuration the plane has. On this version (still the more common layout), Business Class is divided into two cabins in a traditional 2x2x2 configuration. Rows 1-3 in the forward cabin and rows 7-10 in the rear. We sat in 2 K&H and I can not say one cabin is more comfortable or intimate than the other, although there were less passengers in the rear. The aircraft is wider than a 767 so that allows for a more spacious feel in each cabin. The bulkhead seats have a little more leg room, but the 60 inch pitch was more than enough for me. What I did like about the bulkhead is when the seat is in the sleeping position your legs do not slide under the seat shell in front of you. That said, there is more knee room and less of you sliding under the forward shell in the other rows than many of the new lie-flat staggered seats. According to Seat Guru the seats are 22 inches wide, however, I felt they were much more narrow than that. I liked the color scheme of the cloth seats and cabin very much. Kind of a brownish charcoal (if there is such a color). While there are several compartments to store personal items at your seat, there is not a lot of storage area. There’s a place for your bottle of water as well as slippers or shoes directly below, plus a little area at your side as well as a shell below the TV monitor.
As I said boarding was quick, and despite late boarding we pushed back from the gate just a few minutes late. As we were backing up I noticed the ground crew was standing in a line, and much to my delight, in unison, they bowed to the pilots. I have always liked this custom when departing Japanese Airports and was pleased to see it was being honored in San Diego. Shortly after take-off the flight attendants came around with champagne and orange juice (not sure if this is their usual procedure or they just didn’t have time before departure) followed by a warm towel (nice towel, but not too hot) and menu’s. Main dish orders were taken along with your beverage choice a few minutes after the menu’s were handed out. There was a Japanese option as well as a Western one.
Two starters of marinated vegetables and a cocktail of shrimp and scallops kicked off the meal service and were accompanied with the drinks. My wife enjoyed both dishes, but I personally would prefer a nice bowl of premium nuts with the initial beverage service (but I eat like a 12 year old 😉 ). After a considerable amount of time the flight attendants returned with hors-d’ouevre (appetizers). The towels sat at our seat for a while and while it didn’t bother me at all, I can see where some passengers would be put off by this (I actually read a few reviews and this was mentioned). I am not sure why it takes so long to remove the towels as there were several flight attendants assigned to Business Class and it was only 3/4 full. About an hour after take-off and thirty minutes after the starter was served, the flight attendants finally appeared to set-up our tables. The appetizer and bread basket were served by trolley. There were three choices to chose from; Lobster with Quinoa & Lentil Salad, which my wife had and enjoyed very much, Black Cod, or Smoked Duck. I do not like seafood, so I opted for the duck. It must not have been that great, because I can not remember if I liked it our not and I did not take a photo of it.
There were two choices for the main dish. My wife had Breadcrumb & Herb Crusted Salmon with Brown Rice which she thoroughly enjoyed, while I ate one of my favorite meals; US Prime Beef Fillet with Peppercorn Sauce. I was excited to see under the bread section on the menu, that steamed rice was also available. I love rice with my steak and ordered a side of it with my dinner, even though the meal included potatoes. While the steak was tasty (peppercorn sauce was good), and I really enjoyed the rice with it. I would have enjoyed it more if it was served a little warmer. The fillet was not cold, but it certainly wasn’t hot. The Japanese menu consisted of nine dishes in kobachi bowls. I am not sure if you got a choice or if all nine came in one serving. I have included a photo of the Japanese menu, as I really can not explain it correctly.
Shortly after dinner a dessert of Black Bean Custard Pudding with Tapioca and Green Tea were served by cart. I can not say I was thrilled with the dessert selection. I tried the pudding and while it was ok, it did not satisfy my sweet tooth. I asked the flight attendant if there was any other desserts and she brought us some chocolate truffles and ice cream (Knowing it was on the anytime menu). This made me much happier and was a great way to finish an enjoyable meal. Another warm towel was handed out, and as the flight attendant was clearing our trays she explained the anytime menu and the service for the duration of the flight.
There was a self-serve set up between galleys that had a few sweets and Japanese packaged salty snacks. I was only able to sleep two hours and had a few items from the self-service bar. I also ordered a fruit plate off the anytime menu. After watching another movie the second meal was served (2.5 hrs before landing). A choice of either a Japanese dish of Salt-grilled Black Cod, Poached Enoki Mushroom & Watercress, Steamed Rice, and Miso Soup or the Western choice; a Lobster Tartlet with yogurt and fruit. Neither was appealing to me so I ordered off the anytime menu. I ordered a Deep-fried chicken cutlet sandwich with Cauliflower soup and my wife just had the soup. Both this meal and the fruit plate came with a warm towel. The soup was surprisingly good (my wife loved it and I don’t usually like cauliflower) and the sandwich was ok. It actually was cold and I asked the flight attendant if she could re-heat it. She apologized and returned a few minutes later with a slightly warmed chicken sandwich 😉 Besides what we ordered, there were several items on the anytime menu; Steamed Rice topped with Seafood, Tokyo Curry Lab, Japanese Udon Noodles (wished I ordered), Assorted Cheeses, and Ice Cream. And you could order off it anytime up to an hour and a half before landing. Even with having a meal an hour earlier the flight attendant told my wife and I that the kitchen was closing and asked if we wanted anything else to eat. I liked the idea of this anytime menu, just wasn’t crazy about the choices (but I’m picky). So on an 11 hr flight you could have three meals or be left alone to sleep.
As I said, I read a lot of negative comments about the seats not being 100% lie-flat. Especially on such a new aircraft. However, I do not like sleeping in the 180 degree flat position because you sink to low to the ground, so this was not as big a deal to me as it may be to others. I actually prefer to sleep in a cradle position. I was able to rest my arms on the armrests, so I was comfortable for the most part (if traveling alone there is no privacy divider between seats). The seat controls were at the end of the armrest and I found it easy to maneuver the seat. There was even a lumbar support control button. I tried the angle flat position on this flight and the seat became way to narrow for me. You sunk down under the seat in front of you and I would have had a hard time getting comfortable. I sleep in the coffin position and I literally felt like I was in a coffin 🙂 The cabin temp was a little warm for me, but the air vent worked great which kept me cool enough to use the blanket when sleeping. I wouldn’t call the blanket and pillow luxurious, but they certainly added to your comfort. There was a light at the seat which worked very good as well as one overhead. As nice as it is to sit in the window seat and enjoy the view with the large windows and no shades on the Dreamliner, there is one drawback, it would be hard to climb over your neighbor without disturbing them if they were in a recline position. Unless you had very long legs, you would have to ask them to bring their seat up to allow you to exit.
There are multi-plug power ports between the seats on the end of the center armrest and a USB port on the TV monitor. I couldn’t get the plug to work (may be my charger), but the USB worked fine. The TV screen is a generous 15.4 inches and you can access the IFE through either the touch screen or hand-set. I preferred the touch screen as the hand-set was a little jumpy. The IFE is on-demand (AVOD) and had a decent amount of content. Most of the Movies,TV shows and audio (CD library) was in Japanese, There was enough Hollywood movies (mostly new releases and a few classics) to keep me entertained on an 11 hour flight, but maybe just if flying one-way (which we did). Of the movies I watched on both flights, two were censored and two weren’t. Almost all of the television programming was in Japanese (no sit-coms) and there were a few programs and movies in Chinese and Korean. I couldn’t find any European movies at all. I read that the new Sky Suit will have a expanded selection of entertainment. In addition to the audio and video, there are games, e-books, and a very good moving map to keep you occupied. Noise-canceling headphones were provided. They were ok, but not much difference when in the canceling mode than not, also one side of mine didn’t work. I didn’t mind as I just used my headphones which provided a better listening experience anyway. I did need a two prong adapter to plug into the outlet (which is located over your shoulder under the light). I do not remember if programming started while we were on the ground or after take-off. There were a few TV monitors on the wall that showed some news programs after take-off and then displayed the moving map for the rest of the flight. There was no WiFi on this flight.
There are three lavatories in Business Class. One forward and two in-between the cabins in the galley. While the quality of the hand towels were not the best (most Asian carriers have cloth towels in the lavs) they were lavatories were extremely clean and had toothpaste and toothbrushes if needed. Of course on the 787 you do not need to press any buttons to flush the toilet. Just wave your hand over the flush symbol and away she goes 😉 All announcements were in English and Japanese and while the flight attendants may not have been fluent in English they were all very friendly, accommodating and available if needed.
Despite the bad weather and a little circling we actually landed into Narita a few minutes early, which made me very happy. However, after a long taxi we ended up arriving at the gate on-time. We only had an hour or so to catch our flight to Bangkok and I knew we had to clear security again. Luckily it was a breeze and even left us enough time to visit JAL’s First Class lounge. I thought we only had 20 minutes or so and I decided to use that time to get a quick massage. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the gate the flight was delayed 40 minutes. I wish I knew before heading to the gate (showed on-time on monitors in lounge). So we made our way back to the lounge for another 20 minute visit. There was a further few minute delay and when boarding finally started it was a little chaotic, but the staff did a good job to ensure Business Class passengers boarded first.
As we boarded the Dreamliner to BKK we received a warm greeting just like in San Diego. I noticed, that like the flight to NRT, the crew was all female. We again were seated in 2 K&H and the seats were exactly the same as the prior aircraft. The only difference was that it was almost full, the blanket at the seat was much thinner, and there was no amenity kit. Again, no pre-departure drink was offered, however, bottle water was distributed before take-off and the flight attendants came by with a basket of ear plugs, moisture mask, eye freshener, toothbrush/toothpaste, landing cards for Thailand, and premium lane passes for passport control in Bangkok. Menus were distributed a few minutes later.
We were delayed a further 20 minutes due to ATC and eventually pushed back more than an hour late. On this flight, programming on the IFE system could be accessed while we were on the ground. There was the same amount of content, but the programming was slightly different (could have been the prior months line-up). Headphones were also provided, but these were not noise canceling. In fact, they were poor quality and disappointing for what you would expect to receive on a 6 hr plus flight. Again, I used my own so it didn’t effect me at all. The LED sky lighting was more evident on this flight (probably because at night).
Announcements were made in Japanese and English and a few times in Thai. Twenty-five minutes after take-off Champagne and orange juice was offered followed by a nice hot towel. The orange juice was much better on this flight than from SAN and my wife enjoyed her Delamotte Brut champagne. Shortly thereafter, drink orders were taken along with some packaged snacks. I was impressed when a flight attendant appeared out of nowhere to refill me coke.
There were three choices for dinner and only one Western option. Luckily for me it was Grilled “Wagyu” Beef Sirloin. The Japanese selection was Kyushu Gozen and a more casual dining box (see photo of menu).There was also anytime offerings of Ramen, Udon, or Soba noodles. The dinner service started with a Salad of Pate de Champagne and Consomme with Caramelized Onion & Parmesan Cheese. They were both edible, but nothing special. The beef, while tasty (sauce was very good), had a strange texture and was very fatty. I have experienced this on other airlines on flights out of Narita. I know Japan has very good beef and I have enjoyed it many times, but somehow I have been occasionally disappointed on flights out of NRT. On the positive side the bread was from Maison Kayser and was excellent and I again was able to order a side of rice. Dessert followed shortly after my plate was removed and I again asked for ice cream in fear I would not like the dessert that was offered. But the Yamada Family’s “Hojicha” Tea Pudding was very good as was the ice cream, which more than made up for the lackluster dinner. In addition to the pudding, there was also a cheese selection available. A nice cold towel (which I like) finished the dinner service.
I slept much better on this flight and woke in time to order a little more food before our arrival. I had a cup of Ramen soup which was quite good. I passed on a second ice cream even though I would have more than happy to indulge in another. The ice cream was meant to be served as a pre-arrival dish along with Japanese delicacies “Onigiri”. My wife slept 5.5 hrs and through all services. However, when she woke the flight attendants immediately brought her a hot towel and asked if she wanted anything to eat or drink. When they saw me also use her towel they immediately brought another one for me.
For some reason we circled a little before landing at Suvarnabhumi and after another long taxi to the gate we were 2 hrs late. The premium lane pass helped get us through passport control a little sooner than if we didn’t have them.
For the most part I really enjoyed both flights. JAL is a Japanese carrier and obviously will cater to the Japanese traveler. But I felt very comfortable and was impressed with the service and how attentive the flight attendants were. I was equally impressed with the 787 Dreamliner. Not only because of the newness, the lighting, big shade free windows, large overheads, better quality of air (to be honest I did not feel any difference in the cabin pressure or air quality, but I always feel comfortable on a plane, so maybe others will feel the difference) etc. But maybe even more so that with the 787 Dreamliner it allows a company like JAL to fly out of a market like San Diego. To be able to bypass SFO and LAX and fly directly to Asia is extremely convenient. I have flown to Thailand many times and even with the two hour delay, it still took less time from our house to BKK then ever before!!
*** It is now 2018 and since I originally reviewed this flight I have taken this same flight in Business Class three or four additional times. JAL is updating their Business Class seats to fully lie-flat seats, but I have never had this configuration to or from San Diego. Always the same seats as I experienced on these initial flights and the service was identical and equally enjoyable. I have also flown on the B787 on a few other routes in Business. Again BKK to NRT and Moscow DME to NRT. On these routes I have experienced the new seats, I will do a full review at some point, but in the meantime here is photo of the new seats. I must say, JAL is one of the few airlines still offering non lie-flat seats, and I am sure at some point they will finish upgrading their fleet, but while I always hope to get the new lay-out, I actually still enjoy these seats.