FIRST IMPRESSIONS December has been a busy month for JAL, with a new premium economy product launched on the London-Tokyo route (click here for a full review), and a brand new first class service introduced on selected domestic routes. From Tokyo, most domestic flights with JAL leave from Haneda airport (previously the city’s international airport before Narita was built), which is located much closer to the city centre and is accessible by monorail from Hamamatsucho subway station (approx £2.65 depending on your starting point). At present, the first class offering is available on seven flights each day from Haneda to Osaka’s Itami airport – from April 2008, the seats will also be introduced on routes to Fukuoka and Sapporo from Tokyo.
CHECK-IN Flights going south of Tokyo leave from the appropriately named South Terminal, and I arrived at 1615 for my 1730 flight. I realised later that this was far earlier than I needed to be there – the minimum check-in for all classes at Haneda is 15 minutes before departure. There is a separate check-in desk for first class passengers, manned by two attendants. Directly next to the desk was the entrance to the Diamond Premier lounge, with a private security screening – the whole process from arriving at check-in to being airside took under five minutes. Checked luggage allowance for first class passengers is 40kg.
THE LOUNGE A fairly modest affair, but then the service has not been designed around passengers spending much time at the airport. There is a business corner with internet connections, a dark-wood panelled TV area with the Bloomberg channel showing, and a small drinks and snacks bar (with what I thought was a fridge but later discovered contained a supply of piping-hot towels). There is seating for around 40 guests although there were never more than ten at any one time.
BOARDING I was advised by a member of staff to proceed to the gate ten minutes before departure, but as all of the announcements and departure boards were in Japanese, I decided to leave a little earlier at 1710. It was a good five minutes’ walk to the gate (there is another Diamond Premier lounge closer to the departure points). First class passengers board via a separate ramp and my coat was taken as I sat down. Having missed our slot, we took off at 1755.
THE FLIGHT Domestic first class onboard the Boeing 777-200 is configured in a staggered 2-2-2 formation, with a total of 14 seats in the cabin. The comfortable cream-leather armchair is 53cm wide, with a 130cm seat pitch and a 132-degree recline. It has a fixed privacy divider, individual reading lamp and large wooden table stowed in the armrest, and amenities include slippers, a 100 per cent wool blanket, a cushion, and noise-cancelling headphones (although the programme showing on the TV screen was in Japanese). Flight time to Osaka is around 70 minutes, during which I was served a glass of Taittinger Comtes de Champagnes Blanc de Blancs 1998, along with sushi hors d’oeuvres of Abalone, Japanese cockle, squid and conger eel, created by chef Seizo Yamada of French restaurant Epouvantail in Osaka. Alternative snacks included prosciutto ham and cheese croissants, or a cheese selection – JAL says it will change the menu in first class every ten days.
ARRIVAL We arrived just five minutes behind schedule, and being a domestic flight there were no customs procedures, so I was outside by 1850. Airport limousine buses run from Osaka Itami airport to city-centre hotels and take around 20 minutes. The first available bus was at 1900, so I was at my hotel by 1920.
VERDICT Effortless check-in and great service onboard, but is first class worth it on such a short flight, particularly when the famous Shinkansen bullet trains ply the Tokyo-Osaka route? If you checked in on the limit, by my reckoning you could do a city-centre to city-centre trip in around 140 minutes if all went to plan. The bullet train from central Tokyo station to Shin Osaka (around 15 minutes from central Osaka) takes from 145 minutes, depending on the time of day, so the plane just shades it timewise.
PRICE A one-way flight with JAL in first class costs around £125 (£90 for a full-fare domestic ticket, plus a £35 surcharge), compared with £84 in the Green Car (first class) on the bullet train.
It’s also worth noting that, where available, international passengers travelling in first class with JAL will automatically be seated in first class for domestic connections at no additional charge. However in most cases this will involve transfering from Tokyo's Narita Airport to Haneda for domestic flights, which in itself is an 80 minute journey and costs £13 by bus. And of course since 2004, JAL has offered a domestic business class domestic product called J Class, which for a roughly £4 surcharge on the full economy fare includes a larger seat, soft drinks, blanket and headphones, but no lounge access or meal service and just 15kg luggage allowance.