Recently JAL have renewed their economy class and publicised it a bit. I had the chance to fly with them this month, with a return ticket. I booked CDG-HND and NRT-CDG, because I noticed that on the return flight I would get a seat on the new 787-800 dreamliner.
Let’s have a look at the various features of JAL’s service between Paris and Tokyo, which I think would probably be representative of the rest of their intercontinental offering. Some of the observations (e.g. the lounge), may not be applicable to some readers that do not have OneWorld emerald or sapphire status.
- On the ground: departing CDG
JAL has a strange arrangement at CDG, to say the least. Rather than being in the same terminal as the rest of OneWorld (2A and 2C), they codeshare with Air France and are situated in terminal 2E. This means that unless your OneWorld status comes from JAL’s own Mileage Bank program, or have AirFrance status as well, you won’t be allowed in the lounge. The good news is that if you have a premium economy ticket (where they operate a 3-or-more-class aircraft, that is), the lounge is included in the ticket. I was actually offered the upgrade on the way out for just 250 euros – in hindseight this would have been a good bargain. I would advise that if you get the option you should take it.
- On the ground: departing NRT
Departing from Narita was incredibly simple. Tokyo is a well organised city and getting to the airport was a breeze. JAL have an impressive 2 bags per person allowance even for travellers in economy, and we definitely needed it given the amount of shopping. The check-in attendants were incredibly polite and helpful, and they even wrapped up our umbrellas for us. They took the trouble to ask if we had bottles in the suitcases and marked them as fragile. There are separate security lanes, one exclusively for JAL status holders and First class travellers, and one for OneWorld status holders. For the first time in my life, whilst going through a priority security lane, I had someone actually help me unpack and arrange my things in trays.
- The seat
The renewed seat has some very nice features, one of them being a USB connector (on the left side of the screen in the picture). The screen is about the size of an iPad, and it seems to have very good resolution and brightness/contrast. This is in stark contrast with what you get with BA and Virgin Atlantic, for example, which in many cases are just pitiful and I end up watching things on my laptop.
- The meal(s)
The meals were simply amazing. Apart from the fact that on the return flight we were served two full meals and two snacks, JAL are the only airline that I know of that seem to make an effort by giving nice food with a Japanese twist, and plenty of small extras on the side. Not to mention the metal cutlery, which is a refreshing change from what you get elsewhere nowadays. Our second meal on the return flight was a build-it-yourself MOS burger (if you’ve been to Japan you know what I’m talking about), which was delicious and fun. The only thing I can really say about the food (in-flight and in the lounge) is that I ate too much. But I always do that when I’m flying so I can’t really fault JAL for it!
- The service
There clearly are two separate levels of service, and not in the way you think of. Japan-based JAL staff are way more courteous, polite, and helpful than the foreign ground-based ones. It is part of Japanese culture to be helpful and nice, and I think that shows in the training they receive. They also seemed to be incredibly polite and professional between themselves, and always had a smile on their face (I don’t speak much Japanese, but I do understand enough to tell when someone is being direct, rude, or dismissive).
- The Lounge
While the slightly odd arrangement they have at CDG meant I didn’t get to see the Air France lounge, the JAL Sakura lounge in Narita is a very strong point in favour of JAL. This is a fully-fledged OneWorld lounge so you can gain entrance with any OneWorld status, so we used my Cathay Pacific Gold (thank you Amex!) to get in. It is one of the best business class lounges in which I’ve been. For starters, the food was of very good quality and the drinks selection was excellent. Top that with excellent views of the airport, a free massage (was all booked while we were there though), excellent massage chairs, nap rooms, and some decent alcohol selection, and it sits up there with the best business class lounges.
- Avios and Tier Points
Readers beware. If you book a JAL discounted economy flight, you will end up with a 25% avios earning rate. You still get the full Tier Points though, so it’s still a good deal. It may be the case that if you book a BA codeshare you will get the full Avios as well, but I’m not sure about that.
Final thoughts about the trip
It is hard for me to say anything bad about JAL. They seem to have nailed most of the things that the other airlines get wrong in Economy: basic little touches here and there (like the USB port that I used to charge my phone), the extra baggage allowance, and the fact that you didn’t feel like cattle at any point during the process. Compared to the experience I had the following day combing back to London from CDG (that’s a completely different story that I’ll cover in a future post), this was a great experience.