Review: JAL First Tokyo (NRT) – Sydney (SYD)

On 1 December 2014, JAL (JL) started flying Boeing 777-300ER aircraft on its daily Tokyo Narita (NRT) – Sydney (SYD) return service. This means that for a limited time JAL operate four class service to SYD. First class is again available on this route, as well as fully flat business class seating and a premium economy cabin.

At present, this aircraft is only scheduled to fly this route through 28 March 2015. This aircraft is fitted with JAL’s latest SKY SUITE product and means fully flat beds are offered in both first and business class – a vast improvement on what is usually offered by JAL on this route (a Boeing 777-200ER aircraft configured with angled-flat business class as its highest cabin). JAL have from time to time also threatened to turn this into a 787 route and it will be interesting to see what JAL do with this route in the future.

We flew first class from Tokyo’s Narita airport to Sydney on JL771. It is an evening departure (1935), which arrives in the morning (0720 +1).

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Left to make our own way from the first class lounge to the boarding gate, we arrived to find scene that resembled a zoo. However, there was an agent holding up a ‘first class’ sign in a far corner and we battled through the crowd of business class passengers (who were already boarding) to make it to this agent, who swiftly opened a glass gate and let us through. As it turns out, this was the highlight of service for this flight (and readers will note that we haven’t even made it down the jetbridge).

Upon boarding, pre-departure drinks were eventually served (which is new, compared to previous experiences on JAL). Gate-to-gate inflight entertainment was also activated and QC15 headphones were already waiting for us at our seat.

The cabin is well presented (below are some photos taken at the end of the flight).

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Despite first class having its own aerobridge, and all first class passengers having been boarded, there was a constant stream of economy class passengers boarding through first class.

We requested our ‘loungewear’ as a way to goose the service along a bit and went to the bathroom to change. Both bathrooms are located on the left of the aircraft in front of door 1L (in other words, in front of the first class cabin).

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Usually in JAL first, we can’t ever make it to the lavatory without finding a JAL flight attendant helpfully holding the door open for us (the doors bi-fold on sliding tracks). That was not the case here. It is worth noting that the bathroom on the left is more spacious than the one on the right, and has a ‘dressing bench’, and so is better suited to changing in. Both have a bidet-style toilet.

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Menus were distributed after take-off, but were just casually handed out, rather than distributed in the usual leather binder with JAL’s stylised F branding printed on the front. This didn’t bode well for the service on the rest of this flight.

We also prefer to have the menus at our seat prior to takeoff (as is usually the case on JAL, and most other airlines globally), as we like to use the dead time on the ground to peruse the menu and decide on what to eat and drink.

The menu

JAL have rather unique branding for its menus: ‘BEDD’. The menu informs us that this is short for bed, dining, delicious and dream, and is “to subtly remind passengers for First Class and Business Class that they can transform their seats into snug beds after a satisfying repast”.

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We eventually gave up waiting for a flight attendant to proactively come and take our order and so flagged one down to place our order for the caviar hors-d’oeuvre and the poêlée of kuroge wagu beef (which the flight attendant later confirmed had been put aside for us. This point gets important later). We insisted on having our meal prior to landing into Sydney, as it was well after 10pm Australian Eastern time by the time we were in the air and we wanted to sleep and adjust to the new timezone.

While you may think this makes for a strange breakfast, this menu didn’t have any obviously breakfast options. Essentially, passengers get one main multi-course meal and then there is an a la carte snack menu for the rest of the flight.

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Before bed we had a glass of Champagne SALON 2002, which the wine list builds up: “the 2002 vintage of intricately woven aromas, with nothing superfluous resembles an orchestra”.

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It is pleasing to be able to try something different in the air, as the menu noted “First Class passengers on JAL, of all the people in the world, have the exclusive privilege of savouring the latest Salon vintage in the air”.

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Our glass then sat empty for a surprisingly long time before a refill was offered.

A few notes about the seat: fixed in front is a 23″ entertainment screen. The table is also fixed there, and slides out on a track (seen in the second picture below) to be useful. To the left of the table when in the takeoff position is a cubby which contains the power supply.  Under the ottoman (which can be used as a guest seat) is plenty of space for luggage storage under the ottoman and even a cutout for shoe storage.

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The seats have shells around them, but no doors. We found we couldn’t see any other passengers while we were sitting so thought this was well designed.

There are overhead bins over the window seats, but not over the pair of two in the middle. We think this is a suitable compromise between a feeling of airy spaciousness and having somewhere to store pillows, doonas (for international readers – that’s a duvet) and extra carry-on luggage.

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Naturally as a Japanese airline, there are plenty of electronic controls. Pressing once on any of the pre-sets to bed, relax or upright is sufficient to move the seat to that position. Press again to stop the seat moving (there is also an additional stop button which readers will be unsurprised to hear does the same thing).

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The controller on the left is the entertainment system. The controller on the right is located in the next compartment along (which is designed as a briefcase storage, but we found useful for storing computers and the like as our briefcase didn’t fit) and seems to be mainly useful as a pricey telephone.

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The flight attendants handed out complimentary wi-fi cards after takeoff (which is not something they do on all JAL routes in first class in our experience). As far as we know, the wi-fi doesn’t work in Australian airspace.

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One of the lights on the inside of the seat is helpfully designed to double as a headphones holder. (To switch on these lights, you twist them).

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When it is time to sleep, the seat reclines and the footrest comes up, before being topped by a mattress cover (Hard or Soft’), although we didn’t find the soft side very soft, so we can’t imagine what the hard side would be like. We disagree with commentary that it is extremely comfortable, but it is obviously vastly preferable to sleeping on leather.

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Normally airline seatbelts have decent slack in them so they can be fastened loosely when sleeping so they can be fastened over the doona loosely enough not to interfere with sleep. Unfortunately that is not the case with this product (and with the turbulence we experience en route from Tokyo to Sydney, we did need to fasten our seatbelt).

We woke up about two and a half hours out of Sydney. The picture below shows the doona bunched up in the footwell after we were done sleeping.

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We let the flight attendants know we were ready for our meal.

We started with the Amuse Bouche – Quiche of Brocolli & Macadamia Nut, Spiced Dried Tomato Sable, and Tartare of Turnip, Salmon & Cuttlefish. We almost immediately regretted it. We found this basically inedible. A shame.

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The caviar hors-d’oeuvre was delicious.

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The flight attendant then bought a plastic bag in a bowl out and then opened the bag and transferred the contents onto the plate in front of me. We thought this was strange. It didn’t look much the wagu beef that we had ordered. And in fact it was not. Our meal had been given to someone else and another was just served instead without explanation. Very poor.

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We finished with the dessert of strawberry and rose flan with granola, which was more tasty than the name suggested. This was served with Jean-Paul Hévin macaroons without asking – these were also very good.

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The JAL first class beverages menu for January is as follows:

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Before long we were on final approach to Sydney. On landing, the flight attendants did not shut the curtains, resulting in an influx of business class passengers. They then changed their mind and closed the curtains, but didn’t eject anyone who had come forward before they did that.

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We find the hard product in JAL first class to be very good, but were very surprised that this flight was marred by service that we would find questionable even in business class.

We’ve also reviewed JAL first class Chicago – Tokyo here.

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8 Comments on "Review: JAL First Tokyo (NRT) – Sydney (SYD)"

  1. Uh, i am taking this flight in two weeks (doing JFK-NRT-SYD)… i was quite looking forward to it but after this review i am actually dreading it. but thank you for all the warnings. did the other F passengers eat their meal after departure?

    also, did you not receive a Loewe amenity kit?
    thx.

  2. @Lantean – we hope it was just an anomaly, because we usually find JAL F very good.

    All the other F passengers ate their meal after departure. But if you are connecting from JFK-NRT you might be keen to sleep on the NRT-SYD flight down under.

    Did receive the amenity kit (well it was on our table when we woke up in the morning), but haven’t actually opened it.

  3. Agree a somewhat strange menu for an overnight flight, and to not put aside your selected choice is extremely poor, particularly without a reason or apology

    Did you complain on the spot, or just accepted it.

    Seat certainly looks like it needs the mattress. Disappointing that the mattress was not particularly soft and the bad design of the seatbelt.

    That said on my premium JAL experiences (sadly only Domestic First and Intl Business) I have always taken the Japanese option which is always delightfully presented and very tasty, and the service has always been decent (albeit never got the special gift service at the end of the flight that seems to be common for the Japanese salarymen), albeit only a few staff communicated well in English.

    • Just took it. They were hardly going to conjure up a new meal in mid air.

      Think the mattress is designed for the Japanese market which prefer a harder sleeping surface.

      Agree, the Japanese option on JAL is very good.

  4. Thanks for the review.
    I will be flying JAL F from SFO – HND on April , my flight is JAL 1, depart at 1:35 a.m., since the departure time is quite late (past midnight), I was wondering what lounge in SFO that I could check?
    Arriving at HND at 4:45 am, is there any F lounge open that I could visit to have breakfast and drink before heading out?
    Also, can I choose Japanese option for main dishes but also request additional main dishes from Western option such as wagyu beef and caviar? I have huge appetite and want to order as much as I can to maximize the experience of flying F first time in my life. Do I need to place an order in advance before the plane take off to avoid they gave it to other F passengers (like in your case)?

    Also for inbound will depart ICN to NRT in J (arriving at NRT at 4:25 pm) then from NRT to SFO in F class, departing at 12:05 am, which is the best lounge should I go to? in HND or NRT?

    Your advice is greatly appreciated since this is my first time flying JAL F so I want to maximize my experience. Thanks in advance.

    • Hi David

      JAL have their own lounge in SFO’s international terminal.

      You’ll be at HND arrivals when you land, so not really practical to go visit a departure lounge if you aren’t connecting as you would have to go through flight transfers security and then you would be in the departures area even though you aren’t departing.

      We’ve never tried to have additional main dishes from the other menu. Unless you speak Japanese, it might be difficult to explain to the crew what you want to do. They may also not be able to accommodate that request. What you can easily do is add dishes from the a la carte menu (check out our review of ORD-NRT for some examples).

      On our flight we had ordered our main in advance, but what we were served was not what we had ordered!

      It sounds like you are getting into NRT and then flying out of HND. In which case, you’ll use the HND lounges. The JAL F lounge in HND is very new.

      Enjoy your flights on JAL in F.

      • Thanks a lot for your reply and advice. It’s surprising and unacceptable that they gave you different dishes than you had ordered before in advance. Did you make a complaint to them, since you are an F passenger.
        By the way, how to order the food in advance? can we order it when we check in at airport or online? or by JAL remote control system on the plane?

        I could not find your flight review on ORD-NRT route, would you please kindly share the link, thank you!

      • @David – no we didn’t make a complaint.

        You order food from the flight attendant while onboard, which we tend to do on boarding or after take-off. There is a system on the IFE for ordering, but we didn’t use that so not sure if it only applies to snacks.

        Our JL9 review is at: http://milesdownunder.com/2015/02/review-jal-first-chicago-tokyo/

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