JAL Economy class cabin. Seats have red backs with grey seats.

JAL 787: cushy for longhaul economy but could use soft tweaks

Cartoon of passengers, flight attendant and pilots onboard an aircraftAfter nearly three years of being largely closed off to outsiders and tourists, Japan is open. And so, I immediately pounced on a trip that would see me return to the land of the rising sun. I have never before moved around so many miles with different bookings to get the best flight, but I eventually settled on Japan Airlines (JAL) from New York JFK to Tokyo Narita.

From a passenger experience (#PaxEx) standpoint, Japan Airlines is regarded as one of the best airlines in the world. I was very excited to finally get to experience it for myself. As an added bonus, once a week during the winter 2022 season, JAL was operating one of the world’s least dense widebodies to New York. I zeroed in on that opportunity.

I had no issues booking the flight with miles through American Airlines, as the reservation created both an American and JAL record locator that the latter immediately recognized and allowed me to select a seat. I especially appreciated that JAL’s seat map indicated where infants are located, as well as calling out window seats that don’t actually have a window.

Although JAL was able to create mobile boarding passes, they were not accepted at the TSA checkpoint at the always chaotic JFK Terminal 1. Thankfully, the checkin line was nonexistent at the time and I obtained a printed pass.

A busy TSA checkpoint at JFK.

After a brief visit to the Lufthansa lounge using Priority Pass, boarding began just 20 minutes before departure time and, in true Japanese fashion, finished with time to spare. I guess that is possible on a 787 with just 186 seats on board, some of which were even blocked.

JAL 787 parked at the gate on a sunny day, waiting for passengers to board.JAL is the sole airline left in the world still operating the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in the originally intended 8-abreast economy configuration (which is truly a ‘dream’). JAL economy class cabin. The wide seats are red on top and grey on the seat bottom.

JAL calls its economy cabin SKY WIDER, referring both to the nearly 19 inches of seat width and generous 33 inches of seat pitch offered to passengers. There are precious few other aircraft globally affording economy passengers more space than this.

A side view of the large economy class seats. This is a dream configuration.The seatback is loaded with multiple small and large storage pockets which I found useful to hold things like my AirPods and phone charger. Plenty of leg space was available in the side seat pair, which is thankfully clear of any equipment boxes.

JAL economy class seat is loaded with pockets and includes an embedded IFE screen

The electrochromic windows of the 787 enabled me to let a little light into the cabin while still being able to see outside, which I always enjoy.

Looking out the aircraft window over the aircraft wing.

Just like JAL likes to name its cabins, JAL also names its entertainment systems. This particular version of the 787 is outfitted with JAL’s MAGIC-VI, a Thales AVANT system.

This photo is snapped from the rear of the aircraft, looking forward. Rows of economy class seatbacks and their IFE screens are in view.While the system was responsive and bright, JAL stocks a pitifully low number of movies on its system. I counted approximately 43 English-language Hollywood titles with virtually no TV series to round out the numbers.

To make matters worse, the interface listed the same movie multiple times and I couldn’t figure out why. At least movies were presented in decent quality and unedited for content, though the persistent Japanese subtitles on most movies was annoying. The backlit soft buttons on the lower bezel were also quite distracting.

Close up of the JAL seatback IFE feature movies, a moving map and a JAL shop.

Wi-Fi was available and while there was no free messaging tier, the $18.80 price tag for full flight connectivity was, in my opinion, on the upper end of acceptable. But I went for it, nonetheless.

A screenshot of JAL Wi-Fi pricing.

The Panasonic Avionics Ku-band satellite-based system proved quite reliable for the 13-hour flight, and only sputtered for an hour when we neared the far north of Alaska.

Speed test of Panasonic's Wi-Fi delivered solid results, including a 5.81 Mbps download speed and 4.52 Mbps upload.One aspect of the flight I was looking forward to the most was the catering. I figured JAL would offer tasty Japanese inspired meals, but found myself quite disappointed, and even a bit baffled. A printed menu was not distributed at seats, nor was a digital menu available on the entertainment system. A large card was shown by flight attendants right at the time of ordering, so a snap decision had to be made.

JAL menu card offering either the chicken or the salmon main.

I had the chance to try both main courses: the salmon teriyaki with steamed rice and the honey mustard chicken. Both were served with the same trio of sides which were tasty but confusing, along with a very sad side salad.

JAL meal consisting of chicken and vegetables, with various small side dishes and a salad.Smoked salmon with chicken and egg salad? Ok. A surprise cheese ball and artichoke dish that wasn’t on the menu? Whatever. Bread and butter but only served with the chicken dish? That’s weird. This was one of the most confusing airline meals I have ever been served. At least the salmon wasn’t overly dry, and I enjoyed the soba noodles along with the cup of miso soup.

JAL meal consisting of salmon, egg salad, a garden salad and soup.

Halfway into the flight at about 6:30pm New York and 8am Tokyo time, and quite by surprise since there’s no mention of it on the menus nor is a service guide made available, a packaged blueberry muffin was served. This was a real letdown.

One blueberry muffin in plastic wrap.Prior to arrival, yet another curious meal was served, consisting of a Margherita pizza, a cup of fruit, a small bag of pretzels, and a strawberry yogurt.

A box with the words "Pizza Margherita" on it, alongside a small cup of fruit, a bag of pretzels and a yogurt on the JAL tray table.

Was this breakfast? Was it dinner? I have no idea.

A slice of pizza sits in a cardboard box atop the JAL tray table.These meals had a real “see what’s in the fridge and put something quick together” vibe. They also didn’t help reset my body clock.


I would have preferred to have been given a more substantial snack in economy. A cup of noodles or even a more expansive buy-on-board menu would have been appreciated.

BUT at least a basket of delicious snacks was present in the galley.

My experience on JAL was an interesting one, for sure. Its hard product was likely the best I have ever experienced for longhaul economy and I can’t imagine that is likely to change.

The soft product, though, left a lot to be desired

From the barely present IFE content catalog to the outright confusing catering, Japan Airlines has room to step up its product and be truly world class.

A basket of snacks which are available to JAL economy class passengersRelated Articles:

All images credited to the author, Jason Rabinowitz