For the next few months, Sydneysiders are in for a treat with Japan Airlines swapping its Sydney-Tokyo flights to the newer Boeing 777-300ERs, which come with fully-flat beds in Sky Suite business class and free, unlimited inflight Internet for passengers at the pointy end.
Join Australian Business Traveller as we give JAL's new Sky Suites a real-world trial on a recent journey from Sydney to Tokyo's Narita Airport.
JAL's check-in desks at Sydney Airport are conveniently located in Row B – close to the transport stops used by passengers connecting from Qantas domestic flights or arriving on the Airport Link train.
Here, there's a dedicated queue for business class passengers, while Oneworld Sapphire and Emerald members (including Qantas Gold and Platinum frequent flyers) can use the first class priority check-in lane.
Passengers booked in the Sky Suites can check three 32kg bags at no charge and can carry one 115cm cabin bag and one 'personal item' aboard – such as handbag or shopping bag – at a maximum combined weight of 10kg.
We began the journey in Brisbane with JAL's Oneworld partner Qantas, where our bag was conveniently checked through to Tokyo. Although the Qantas and JAL flights were on a single booking, we had to stop by the JAL check-in desks in Sydney to obtain our onward boarding pass.
JAL uses the Qantas Business Lounge in Sydney, which offers barista coffee, 'Island Dining' breakfast, all-day alcohol service and tarmac views:
It's more than adequate for a short stay, with free and fast Wi-Fi to cover you for those last-minute emails.
JAL Mileage Bank Diamond members and JAL Global Club Diamond and Premier cardholders are instead invited to visit the astounding Qantas First Lounge, as are Qantas Platinum and Platinum One frequent flyers and other Oneworld Emerald members.
Located above the Business lounge, you'll find a Rockpool-inspired dining room and plenty of quiet spaces in which to work, although the Aurora spa doesn't open until 8:30am – too late for our 9:15am departure.
Tumi amenity kits were distributed by the crew, containing lip balm, a dental set, earplugs, an eye mask and a moisture mask to help stay refreshed during a long flight.
Aside from the mask, absent were any true skin moisturisers as you'd typically find in a business class amenity kit.
There also aren't any pre-departure drinks, but a glass of the honey-like Delamotte Blanc de Blancs NV champagne lands in our suite shortly after take-off: JAL's Boeing 777-300ERs also come kitted-out with inflight Internet, with business and first class passengers given free access to the service: It's not available while in Australian airspace, although we had no troubles signing-in around three hours after our Sydney departure.
One password allows for only one active connection, yet the crew happily offered a second card so that we could surf on an iPhone and laptop simultaneously.
JL772 left the gate just three minutes late to arrive at Tokyo's Narita Airport 22 minutes ahead of schedule.
JAL's Sky Suites feel a little more 'First minus' than your typical 'business class' – especially in Row 5, which is curtained-off from the rest of the business cabin and usually reserved for top-tier frequent flyers of Japan Airlines, Qantas and Oneworld. Configured in a 2-3-2 layout, there's direct aisle access for every passenger – even those in the centre and window seats – owing to a small corridor in front of the suites in the aisles: A retractable privacy divider between the suites keeps your work from prying eyes, yet it's in the perfect spot to be used as an armrest by 5K – potentially toppling over your champagne: (The passenger gets the hint when we begin to close the divider...)
Aisle seats get a storage nook aside the seat, with a literature pocket and space to store your headphones and other goodies... With adjacent AC and USB power ports, it's also a great place to keep your phone or small laptop while it's recharging – although you'll need to whip out your Japanese, American or European power adaptor as Australian pins don't fit directly into the AC socket. There's a second pocket towards the end of the suite that's perfect for your passport, arrival documents or the Wi-Fi cards... ... and a full-length footrest at the end of the suite, with ample storage underneath for a regular cabin bag: It later forms the tail end of a 65cm wide, 188cm long fully-flat bed: There's a built-in massage feature to help you unwind, and the suite can easily be adjusted to your liking: When it's time to dine (or even work), the tray table swivels around to let you out of the seat without needing to pack everything away: It's also sturdy enough to support a 3kg laptop, and doesn't sag when typing furiously or when using the knife during chow time.
Starting us off are simple nibbles of rice crackers and fermented soybeans – the former were tasty, the latter less so – and a gin Martini. Travellers can then choose between the Japanese or more Western-friendly courses to follow. Being Japan's national airline, we decided to eat as the locals eat, and weren't disappointed.
There's a nine-course entrée, which the menu fortunately maps out:
|Squid with miso vinegar sauce||Seasonal vegetables in Japanese jelly||Smoked salmon with egg yolk|
|Prawns with mustard miso sauce||Roast duck with soy starch sauce||Whitefish with 'Mozuku' seaweed sauce|
|Grilled whitefish with 'saikyo miso' sauce||Steamed savoury egg custard with crab ginger sauce||Simmered taro and Yuba|
Your chopsticks stay for the second course and sit nicely on the chopstick rest, which is a subtle hint to Japan Airlines' red crane logo. Paired with the meal was a glass of the French Rittimann Riesling Vieilles Vignes 2012, with a clean acidity and youthful fruitiness that complemented most of the tasting courses.
Next up is the 'Dainomono' – literally translated into English as 'table of things' – with a sesame-crusted grilled salmon and stewed streaky pork, steamed rice, miso soup, plus Japanese pickles for an extra kick. The pork and salmon were cooked to perfection, the rice adequately sticky so as to be eaten with chopsticks, and the miso soup as you'd expect.
That's followed by the same dessert as with the Western option – a tasty crème brûlée. It doesn't quite have the 'blow torch effect' as you'd find on the ground, but is served in the sky with the top ever-so-slightly hardened, an achievement in itself.
Noticing that we were still enjoying the Riesling, the crew suggest a cheese plate to match – with a non-descript blue and brie, a single dried apricot and two crackers. It was a delicious way to finish the meal, but at just one lone cracker per piece of cheese, we had to ration them as far as possible. Adjusting the 'cracker to cheese' ratio to 4:2 would be a welcome improvement at minimal cost to the airline.
To wind things up is a regular cup of java – described by JAL on the menu as being derived from "the greatest coffees of the world" and crafted by Yoshiaki Kawashima.
We'll admit that isn't not your typical airplane coffee, but given that there's no espresso machine on board, that's quite a boastful line when the absolute basics such as a latte or cappuccino aren't available.
As with the wine, the crew proactively offered a matching plate. This time, it's a trio of Lindt chocolates: If you get peckish during the flight, take a walk back to the self-service counter where you'll find more chocolate, water bottles, wines and snacks: A light dinner is served before arrival, and this time we lean towards the Western option of a seafood rice gratin, fresh fruits and vegetables with dip and a bean salad: The gratin lacked its signature browned crust yet was still rather tasty with fish, prawns and baby octopus mixed in, while the dip accompanying the veggies resembled a mild salsa.
We tried ordering a sweeter beverage with the meal – a 'Cointreau and lemonade', although that was lost in translation with the crew quickly apologising that they didn't stock lemonade.
Amending that to a 'Cointreau and Sprite', the latter of which was on the menu, fixed the problem.
Entertainment & Service
Business class passengers are treated to entertainment on a 23" HD touchscreen monitor – the same as you'll find in 'JAL Suite' first class on the same aircraft and in First on Etihad's Boeing 777 aircraft that also fly to Australia.
There's a relatively limited range of English-language Hollywood movies available, with TV shows more scarce and without any of the 'regulars' such as House of Cards, The Office and Family Guy.
With supplied Panasonic noise-cancelling headphones, we were able to watch (and hear) Les Misérables at its full glory, although other catalogue titles such as Love Actually weren't coded in widescreen, which puts the large panel to waste: Although the entertainment screen can be controlled by the touch, the feature is a little redundant as it's too far away to reach when sitting in the suite (not that we're complaining about having plenty of space!).
It also shows 'time to destination' at the top-right of most screens – handy for quick reference or for determining if you'll make it to the end of your chosen movie before arriving at the gate.
With great food and a spacious business class suite, our only major complaint is that every passenger in business class (and in first class immediately in front) closed their windows during the all-daytime flight, making the cabin feel like midnight at what should be midday.
Travellers have a choice of either Qantas or JAL from Sydney to Tokyo, and we'd opted for JAL on this occasion so as to work during the day while connected to the Wi-Fi – yet had to order several coffees to fight our natural instincts of sleeping when it's pitch black as the suite's reading lights can't compete with natural sunlight.
But if you can nab a window seat and keep your body clock in check during the day, Japan Airlines' Sky Suites are definitely worth a try on your next trip to Tokyo.
Just be quick – the airline's latest schedule shows the Sydney-Tokyo route returning to the older Boeing 777-200s with angled lie-flat beds in business class from March 29 2015, unless the appearance of Sky Suites in Australian skies is extended by JAL.
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