JAL’s domestic 777 first class exceeds expectations

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Japan Airlines’ renowned domestic widebody service offers ten-abreast economy, eight-abreast Class J business-light, and full service first class in six-abreast recliner seating. Naturally, I was keen to try the first class offering and see how it measured up to other domestic premium services. Even with high expectations for the standard of JAL (and Japanese) #PaxEx, I wasn’t disappointed.

JAL’s cheapest advance purchase fares (I had selected an Ultra Sakitoku fare) don’t have a first class option when booking or until checkin. So, on a flight from Sapporo to Tokyo Haneda, I asked at the desk when I dropped my bag, and indeed there was a seat available for an exceedingly reasonable ¥8000 (about US$72) from the domestic business seats in Class J, and only a further ¥1000 if upgrading from back-of-the-bus ten-abreast economy.

(Related: JAL offers no-lift baggage scales in Sapporo, ideal for everyone but particularly useful for older passengers or those who find lifting heavy bags a problem. More airports — particularly those in countries where checked baggage is more prominent than in Japan — should follow Sapporo’s lead.)

Roll-on baggage scales are a big PaxEx plus. Image: John Walton

In Sapporo, first class passengers are welcomed through the fast-track security line (and a truly fast fast-track, too, with helpful staffers working swiftly and efficiently) into the Diamond Premier lounge, a quiet and exceedingly well-equipped spot to while away the time from checkin until boarding, which also offered large windows with expansive runway views.

Many airlines could learn from JAL’s dedication in providing laptop- or tablet-friendly seating, power points, light yet tasty food, and fast wifi. Two types of onigiri rice balls and what tasted like freshly made karepan (Japanese curry buns) were a real highlight, as was the soft drink machine offering a variety of sparkling and still drinks.

Slippers, seat instructions, wifi information and a big battery – these are a few of my favourite things. Image: John Walton

Despite a slight delay, boarding was the efficient, polite Japanese standard that I had come to expect in Japan and have come once again to envy now that I’m not in Japan. A small example of Japanese omotenashi hospitality and service: plastic bags for passengers to take in order to keep their hand luggage clean in the overhead bins or under the seats in front of them.

Thoughtful touches like these plastic bags are such a delight. Image: John Walton

I entered the aircraft through door 1L, along with other first class and Class J passengers, and quickly found my ZIM-manufactured extra-reclining seat in the small 14-seater cabin on this ex-Japan Air Systems Boeing 777-200.

The seats were very comfortable for this short flight — indeed, they’d have been very comfortable for hours more, resembling 1990s cradle sleeper business class seats more than anything else. I will say, though, that the legrest and footrest functionality is not designed for someone of my six foot three (1.91m) frame. Given that I was the only Western person in the cabin, however, I imagine that is not normally a problem for passengers.

I’m unconvinced by the styling, which feels a little 1980s mafioso chic, but the seat was comfortable and exceeded my expectations — especially with the large USB power bank nestled in the seatback.

I also wonder if it would have been smarter to have a moveable privacy divider for passengers flying together, since the partition made the seat pleasantly private for me travelling alone, but would have precluded a conversation with a travelling partner.

Alas, there was a lack of inflight entertainment, which even on this short 90-minute flight could have been offered on a tablet (locally or over wifi) for those first class passengers who don’t (or don’t know how to) load content on their personal electronic devices.

From an international traveller perspective, JAL could take a leaf out of ANA’s book and supplement its passenger experience by commissioning short programmes aimed at tourists in addition to perhaps subtitling or dubbing other Japanese programming.

On the plus side, wireless connectivity via Gogo’s Ku-band service was available, surprisingly fast for the technology, and free during this introductory period. I even managed to stream 720p YouTube on my phone.

Before departure, the crew passed around with a basket of amenity options, including toiletries and a “moisture mask” mask, which captures the moisture from your breath and humidifies the air when you breathe in. While it did end up fogging my glasses until I pinched the nose to keep the air in, I really liked not having my nose dry out. I followed JAL’s lead and hunted down a few for long flights on older aircraft with 8,000 feet cabin altitude and correspondingly dryer air.

JAL’s food and beverage service was simply excellent. I was pleased to see proper Champagne on a route of this length, and the traditional washi paper used as a coaster was lovely.

The rest of the drinks menu — from an Oita prefecture sake to a French red to shochu and four beers on the hard side, with the the usual soft drinks supplemented by two cold teas, a mixed vegetable and fruit juice, and the Kiwi flavour JAL Sky Time drink — was also remarkably expansive for such a brief flight.

The crew individually plated the set meal, which featured some moist and flaky sea bream, together with tasty and umami-laden appetisers and a very moreish sweet potato cake.

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I was quite impressed that even on a domestic route like this, JAL used really upmarket silverware and elegant glassware.

After the meal, refills were very plentiful indeed, and when the flight attendant discovered I like dry natto — the Marmite-like fermented soybean snack that’s challengingly slimy when wet but crunchy and delicious when dry — she dropped off several packets with a genuine smile.

There was a fair amount of turbulence as the humid, often thundery rainy season arrived, and the crew were most apologetic that they weren’t able to serve hot beverages during some of the flight. Apologies for the seven minute overall delay were also sincerely offered.

At the stand in a rainy Haneda, the flight attendants sprang into action, drawing the curtain between Class J and first class to enable passengers in the pointy end to leave first, and when the chief flight attendant opened door 1L she did it with rag in hand to wipe the ceiling so that no passenger was dripped on.

Naturally, the bags on the carousel at the ever-efficient JAL Haneda terminal arrived swiftly and had their handles facing outwards.

So, is JAL’s first class worth the $72 upgrade? If you like #PaxEx — and especially if you like good #PaxEx — absolutely.

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