Return to the Big Smog: Japan Airlines premium economy HND-HKG

Ask me when I’m flying somewhere and I can tell you the date, plus the flight, flight number and time just like that. The return date? Huh? I never commit the return date to memory – who wants to face reality?

Well, ready or not, it was time to head back to Hong Kong and reality. At least I now have a job I’m happy to return to. Since the flight to HKG was a relatively early morning one, we stayed overnight close to the airport. As an aside, I love how Japanese has a specific word, 前泊 (zenpaku), which refers to spending one night before a  trip, such as at a hotel near the airport the night before  a flight. I wonder if other languages also have this concept encoded in one word?

Anyway, back to the hotel. We chose Mystays Haneda, and while the hotel itself was good and one I would recommend (quiet and tour group free on the night we stayed), the area wasn’t very exciting. Just offices, convenience stores and a few restaurants. Since it was the new year period, a lot of small Japanese restaurants were shut. While I don’t begrudge hard-working small business owners time off over a significant festival, the only food options around were Chinese restaurants – not really what you want to eat when you live in Hong Kong and it’s your last night in Japan. Disappointment with food would follow me to my Hong Kong-bound flight to HKG, but before that, let me show you my trip back to HND from FUK in pictures:

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I swear, those ads outside the domestic terminal haven’t changed in years! What a familiar sight

 

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Excellent airport dining

 

A restaurant with a view!

 

Fast forward to the next day, after a decent breakfast which was included in our room rate, we took the free shuttle to the airport, for our flight, JL029.

The night before, I’d tried to check in online, but was met with a message saying I would have to check in at the airport. The last time this happened, I’d got upgraded on CX. Perhaps…?

Alas, no. As I found out at check-in, since I’m a non-Hong Kong/Chinese citizen on a ticket to HKG with no onward journey, the system had flagged me. That is completely unnecessary and I’d lost the window seat I’d reserved when booking, too. Other airlines simply check you in and ask you to collect your boarding pass or present for an identity document check at the check-in desk. In today’s world, it’s really not unusual to live in a country or territory where you are not a citizen, and as I found out on board, we were not the only expats returning to our homes in HKG. The premium economy cabin was full of Japanese expats. I really do think JAL can improve this.

Anyway, bags were tagged with priority tags and we proceeded through security. The airport was busy, unsurprising given that it was during the new year holiday.

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Quite a busy check-in and departures area at HND

One of the best features of the JAL premium economy product is the lounge access. While not amazing, the Sakura Lounge had a decent selection of breakfast items, both Japanese and western, plus alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. It was reasonably quiet and there was a small business centre. There were many Japanese professional types heading to mainland China on business, presumably on the flight to Guangzhou that would be departing not long after ours. After a snack and some time spent browsing the internet, I left the lounge to browse the terminal on the way to Gate 113.

 

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HND is a pleasant airport with decent facilities. I much prefer it to NRT, which is further away from central Tokyo and more expensive to access.

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Time to board. Nice and orderly.

 

Cabin attendants warmly greeted pax and directed us to seats. My initial impression of the premium economy seat was good. As per JAL’s own advertising, it really did seem like a business class seat of old.

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A great first impression. Blankets and pillows waiting on the seat  – take note, Cathay Pacific!

Unfortunately, the window and aisle seats, which we’d reserved online, weren’t ours. Instead, my companion and I were in the middle group of four seats, next to a Japanese expat mother and daughter, while a family of four occupied 2 rows of 2 window and aisle seats. It really didn’t make sense – why not give the pairs the 2 seats and the family of 4 the row of 4 seats?
Look, slippers and noise cancelling headphones! JL is definitely ahead of Cathay at this stage.

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Sitting in the bulkhead, we could see the business cabin. At this stage, I was quite happy with my premium economy seat for this relatively short flight at this stage, though the shell seat would later have me envying the greater recline of the business seats.

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Look, Cathay – a menu on a regional flight!

 

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the ground crew waving and bowing to us since wee seated in the middle rows. I was sad to be leaving Japan, but I still felt like I would be in Japan until landing at HKG, since I was flying JAL. Announcements were in Japanese and English, with the pre-take off and landing messages also in Cantonese, so I think there must have been a Hong Konger crew member, but in the premium economy cabin they were all Japanese. They spoke back to me in English even when I spoke to them in Japanese, but oh well. Interestingly, the captain’s announcement in Japanese included something about protecting oneself from influenza, but the same information wasn’t said in English.

At pushback, immigration forms were provided. Another win over CX. This time, I didn’t need one since I am a Hong Kong resident.

The seat was quite comfy at this stage. The leg rest was a bit short, even for me and I’m not tall. Still, it felt more premium than economy.

Time to explore the IFE. It’s the old generation system, and definitely not in the same league as Emirates, Singapore or even, dare I say it, Cathay. It’s clunky and skewed to Japanese tastes, though there are a decent amount of Hollywood blockbusters to occupy English speakers. There aren’t any TV series, which is unfortunate. It’s also not touch screen, and must be navigated with the remote control.

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Clunky!

One interesting feature of the IFE is that it explains how to fill out immigration cards for all the countries JAL flies to. This would be very handy for those for whom English is not their first language and aren’t given documents in their own language. I was happy to come across a movie version of a Japanese TV crime show I used to watch, called Unfair. It was a nice surprise as I had no idea there had been a movie made and I settled back to watch Detective Yukihira do her thing.

 

No drinks were served post take-off, which was a little disappointing. I asked a cabin attendant for water, and it didn’t arrive until with my meal. As usual, special meals were delivered first. I wonder what JL’s international catering is like? I’d never flown on a route with meals. When I lived in Japan, I usually flew China Airlines or Eva Air and the catering ex-Japan was good, usually a Japanese-style curry. Not quite Indian but good enough.

 

I’m not impressed, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps it tastes better than it looks.

It doesn’t. It’s an abomination and an insult to Indian cuisine and to Japan Airlines itself. When an airline doesn’t offer meals domestically, surely that gives it more opportunity to get the meals on its international sector right. The eggplant slices were soaked in oil and tasted of nothing but, the other vegetables had no discernible taste, and while the rice was yellow, it too didn’t have any flavour. The “dessert” appeared to be two strips of fried donut, similar to that eaten at breakfast in China, with what could be kuromitsu (a kind of molasses) sauce. There’s metal cutlery at least, but it wasn’t much use given the food was inedible.

It really was so bad that I couldn’t eat it. Instead, I turned my attention to the bread and butter… or margarine. Look at the colour! What is this stuff?

 

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This is not food.

Even the bread and ‘butter’ was inedible. Sigh. I would later land in HKG and be find myself so ravenously hungry that I’d loaded up Foodpanda and ordered home delivery on my phone in the cab from the airport. Catering, at least for special meals, definitely doesn’t seem to be JAL’s strong suit. Disappointed, I went back to the movie.

The regular meal arrived and looked fairly decent. Then again, I was comparing it to the abomination I’d just been served. Regular meals were also accompanied with Japanese rice crackers, something that could have been served along with post takeoff drinks, if they existed on JAL, and Haagen Dasz ice cream. I asked the cabin attendant for some ice cream and was told I was ineligible because I’d ordered a special meal. Again, sigh. She later told me if there were any leftover ice creams, I could have one. That seemed fair enough. So, later on, I was handed an ice cream… but just before I could rip off the lid and tuck in, it was snatched away by another crew member, and I was reminded that I’d ordered a special meal, and that it was “company policy” for me to not be given ice cream. Seriously? I wonder what would have happened had I had enough time to open the ice cream… would it still have been confiscated?
At least I was allowed to have coffee when it was served when we were around Okinawa. But wait… I was now allowed to have ice cream. This was quite farcical. I have to emphasise, it’s not about the ice cream itself. Haagen Dazs is sold in any and every convenience store and supermarket in HKG, it’s nothing special. It’s the chop and change, ‘here you are’, ‘no wait you can’t have it’ thing. JAL must also see that ‘special meal’ incorporates a wide variety of dietary and religious factors and this isn’t a particularly great representation of the company.To be fair, this has also happened once on SQ, many years ago, but I was never given it and then had it taken away!
Trays were then collected, and all the blinds were shut. At this stage, there were 2 hours and 46 minutes left. I ordered an umeshu (plum wine). It was served with a packet of Japanese crackers that I’d missed out on earlier, as I’d ordered a special meal.

Suitable for vegetarians… but not part of the special meal 

By this stage, I was finding the seat a little uncomfortable. The shell design is good because you are not bothered by the person in front reclining (though on this flight I was in the bulkhead, so it didn’t matter), but since it was premium economy I really do think the recline could have been a little more generous. My back was starting to hurt. If the recline had been better, I would give full marks to the seat.

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Great legroom, but uncomfortable for the back
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Economy cabin with premium economy in the distance. While the curtains between premium economy and business were closed, the ones between premium and economy remained open during the flight. There’s no separate lavatory for premium economy.

My Japanese movie had finished and we’d left Japan and were now over Taiwan. Time to slip into English language mode in my head. I watched “The Intern”. It was the kind of movie whose ending you knew after the first 5 minutes, but enjoyable enough on a plane. I ordered a second umeshu to accompany it, and again it was served with rice crackers.

One hour before we were due to land, the crew instructed the pax to prepare for landing and to stow electronic devices. This seemed quite early, and wasn’t actually enforced. A message from the HKG Health Department about the Ebola virus was also given. A video about HKG was played throughout the cabin, but thankfully not on our PTVs

 

A little later, we were told we were expecting turbulence on descent, and told the seatbelt signs would be illuminated soon, and to return to seats. A little while after that, we were notified that due to heavy traffic at HKG, descent would be 25 minutes later than originally scheduled. That’s unsurprising (it’s  a good day when you’re not stuck in a holding pattern before landing at HKG!), so that gave me time to finish my movie.

 

As we prepared for landing, we were told that the weather would be cloudy and 20 degrees Celsius. I was disappointed that it was so warm – it’s been a really warm winter in HKG this year. We were also told to expect turbulence on landing. I was surprised that the crew went to their stations for landing, as instructed, but the window shades were still down. This was the first flight I’ve ever had where window shades were down for landing. I’d always thought it was a requirement that they be up. It was a strange sensation to be landing and not be able to see out. It didn’t feel right, and the landing felt more sudden than when one can see out the window.

 

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Final shot of the business cabin as we disembarked. Middle seat in business class 😦

I can’t remember which gate we deplaned at, but thankfully it was one which didn’t require a train. Unfortunately, if you have checked luggage at HKG the time you save at immigration as a resident is negated because the wait for luggage just seems longer and longer.

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Bags arriving? No, no they’re not. Not for the next hour, at least. HKG, please follow SIN’s example and be more efficient!

So, what did I think of my first JAL international flight? It was interesting. Not perfect, but I would definitely choose Japan Airlines over the likes of Cathay because amenities are provided without having to ask for them and JAL feels like an extension of Japan in the sky. The premium economy product is a good one, with lounge access being the best perk – it’s a really nice way to start the trip and makes the premium economy experience more special. Unlike other carriers, JAL premium economy catering does not appear to be different to that of economy, and unfortunately on my particular flight my special meal and my request to deviate from script by asking for an ice cream weren’t handled as well as they could be. The premium economy seat could be a real drawcard, and was comfortable most of the time, and with the noise cancelling headphones, blanket and pillow that are provided and not begged for like on Cathay, and legrest, it really was a pleasant way to fly. But on a long flight the shell seat and its limited recline may become uncomfortable for some.

I’ve heard there are good business fares to be found between HKG and the United States, somewhere I’m keen to visit, via Japan. JAL business class is definitely in my sights, and I would still choose JAL premium economy on medium-haul flights, too.

 

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