FIRST IMPRESSIONS Japan Airlines (JAL) introduced its new premium economy service on December 1, with the London-Tokyo route being the first to see the new seating. The airline is currently offering the product on alternate days, although this will move to daily from December 21, after a second Boeing 777-300 has been fitted with the premium economy cabin.
CHECK-IN I arrived at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 at 1645 for my 1900 flight JL402 to Tokyo Narita. Check-in was at Zone D and there were separate desks for economy, premium economy, business and first class. An attendant went through security questions with me prior to checking in, and as there was no queue I was directed to an available check-in desk, which happened to be for economy. Checked luggage allowance for both economy and premium economy is 20kg (30kg in business and 40kg in first class). At present the airline is unable to offer fast-track security access to premium economy passengers at Heathrow (unless they are escorted by a member of staff), although it may look to do so in the future. Security was fairly quick for Heathrow, and it should be the last time I’ll be limited to one piece of hand baggage, as the rules are due to be relaxed from January 7 next year.
THE LOUNGE A significant boon for JAL premium economy passengers is access to the carrier’s executive lounge, something equivalent customers with the likes of Virgin or BA do not get (although rival All Nippon Airlines does offer the perk). JAL’s Sakura (“cherry blossom”) lounge is located in Zone F past the duty-free shops. (There is also a first class lounge, plus a separate room for VIPs.) I had wondered if the lounge would be packed, given that allowing premium economy passengers access adds a potential 44 extra visitors per flight, but while it was certainly buzzing there were plenty of seats to go round. The Sakura lounge is a smart, business-like area, with grey and blue décor, a business centre with three computer terminals and printer facilities, a relaxation section with a massage chair, several seating areas, and a snack bar with free drinks, cakes, croissants, breads and cheeses. Free wifi internet access is available through T-Mobile, and there is storage for coats and baggage, and toilets but no showers.
BOARDING We were called to Gate 27 (around five minutes’ walk from the lounge) at 1825. The premium economy section is located behind JAL Executive Class Seasons (business class) and consists of 44 seats (five rows of 2-4-2, plus four extra seats at the front of the cabin). Amenities such as eye masks, earplugs and toothbrush were offered, and we took off at 1915.
THE SEAT I was in seat 20K, an aisle seat two rows from the back of the cabin (as far as I could see every seat in premium economy was occupied). The new seat is touted as “the first shell-shaped seat in premium economy” – in other words you can recline without intruding on the space of the passenger behind you. It offers 38-inch seat pitch (20 per cent more than in economy), as well as slightly more width than in economy (which is configured 3-3-3). Other features include an individual reading light, coat hook, a seatbelt which also doubles as an airbag, adjustable leg, feet and head rests, a power socket (although you’ll need an adaptor for English plugs), and a generously sized fold-out table. Premium economy passengers also receive slippers, a blanket and a pillow.
THE FLIGHT Drinks were served around one hour after take-off, followed by a choice of Western or Japanese-style dinner. I opted for the Japanese choice, which consisted of a bowl of soba noodles, a prawn cocktail starter, braised beef in sweet soy sauce with steamed rice, and a strawberry mousse, all served with metal cutlery. The in-flight entertainment (shown on a 9-inch screen in premium economy) on this aircraft is AVOD, with a good selection of around 40 movies, including recent releases, a modest choice of TV programmes, and a bank of music albums. After watching The Bourne Ultimatum I decided to get some sleep. Given a money-no-option choice on a night flight you would still go for business class, but the seat compares well with other premium economy products I have tried, and I was able to sleep fairly well before being woken around two hours before landing for breakfast, which consisted of fruit, croissant, yoghurt, and a hot dish of omelette and sausage, as well as orange juice and coffee.
ARRIVAL We had made very good time during the flight, meaning we touched down at Narita’s Terminal 2 at 1520, 40 minutes ahead of schedule. Disembarking around ten minutes later I had expected long queues at immigration – the Japanese authorities introduced a policy of taking fingerprints and photographs of all foreign visitors entering the country last month. But I was pleasantly surprised to be served within five minutes, and the actual process was quick and efficient. Priority baggage for premium economy passengers meant my case was ready and waiting at the carousel, and I was outside the airport by 1550, ten minutes before we had been due to land. Narita is located 35 miles from the city centre – aside from catching an expensive taxi, the options of getting there include the airport limousine bus service, which costs JPY3,000 (£13) one-way and drops passengers off directly at many of the central Tokyo hotels (journey time around 90 minutes), or the Narita Express train, which serves Tokyo station (journey time 60 minutes) with fares from around the same price.
VERDICT A competitive premium economy product which is significantly enhanced by lounge access. Good in-flight entertainment facilities and impeccable service throughout.
PRICE As an introductory offer for the premium economy service, passengers who book by December 31, 2007 and travel between Monday and Thursday from December 26, 2007 to February 28, 2008 will pay a special online rate of £979 return, compared with the full fare of £2,212.