Steaks On A Plane! JAL Business Class Review
Is there anything more satisfying in life than taking a bite of a big, juicy, rare steak while sitting in an aluminum tube traveling through the sky at 500 mph? The answer is very clearly, “who knows?”, as this tiny little hunk of beef on the tray in front of me offers no insight into this quandary. Is this little piece of beef indicative of the JAL Business Class experience, or is it merely the dim bulb in an otherwise bright business class flight?
Yes, the state of steak and the state of premium air travel are very clearly not related. While the engineering involved in windows that shift in opacity to eliminate the need for window blinds (as used on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner) might seem complex at first, it is nothing compared to the next-gen tech required to cook a steak in the sky. I am basing this assumption on the fact that what was once “Wagyu” beef, a genetic marvel of marbled deliciousness, had been transformed into this low-taste, high-mastication lump served to me for my meal.
But before I get too far, let me assure you that I will be reviewing all the aspects of this flight between Tokyo and Singapore in JAL business class and that thankfully, the steak was the low point. Perplexingly, watching Ant Man 2 may have been the high point, though I am at least somewhat loathe to admit it. The wine, the seat and everything else were the middle points, somewhere between the steak and Ant Man 2, which is perhaps the oddest scale ever used to measure a flight experience, but read on and I shall share all the aspects of my flight experience.
First off, I used Alaska Mileage Plan miles for this little bad boy. 25,000 to be exact and that was for 2 flights in JAL business class with a nice stop in Japan. Alaska Airlines has a bit of a sweet spot for trips within Asia with JAL (you can read more about it in this post) where getting from anywhere in Asia to anywhere else in Asia in business class is only 25,000 miles, and you can build in a stopover in Tokyo even on a one-way ticket. I did exactly that, with my first flight heading from Bangkok to Tokyo, then 5 days in Japan, followed by a flight from Tokyo to Singapore, all for 25,000 Alaska Mileage Plan miles and all in business class.
Just for comparison, the same exact flights in JAL business class would cost $4,685 if paid for in cash, so you are getting more than 18 cents per point in redemption value (not that I would ever pay for these flights in cash).
The In-flight Experience
Now that you know how I managed to get my tickets in JAL business class, it’s time we sunk our teeth in to what the product is actually like. My flight from Tokyo, Narita to Singapore was serviced by a B777-200 featuring the JAL Sky Suite III, which has lie-flat seats in a reverse-herringbone configuration.
The flight time is scheduled at 7 hours and 25 minutes, which is more than enough time to get acquainted with the Sky Suite III seat. Many of the JAL intra-Asia routes, like the one between Bangkok and Narita, are serviced by the JAL Shell Flat Neo Seat, which is an angled-flat product. For this reason, I typically avoid intra-Asia overnight flights in JAL business because I have a very hard time falling asleep on angled-flat seats.
Thankfully, they will be replacing the old angled-flat seats with lie-flat seats on several routes, including the Osaka to Los Angeles route (starting at the end of this month). In the past, I had always recommended clients avoid that particular long-haul route for award tickets, as the experience is sub-par when compared with all of their other flights over the Pacific.
The flight was fairly full from Narita to Singapore but thankfully I never find boarding in business class to be nearly as stressful as the economy class rugby scrum that has become the norm in recent years. I do love that each seat has its own overhead bin, which means never having to worry if there’s enough room for your carry-on bag.
My first impression of the seat is that it’s pretty comfortable. The little “suite” area is a bit wider towards the top of the outer wall, giving you the feeling of a decent amount of privacy. It also has two windows, which while standard in most business class cabins, is still really nice for when you want to watch the world pass by below you.
Waiting for me on my seat were a pair or slippers, noise-cancelling headphones, a blanket, a pillow, the dinner menu and my amenity kit. The amenity kit included:
- Eye mask
- Moisture mask (face mask)
- Ear Plugs
As far as amenity kits go this one really just covers the basics, and actually does it quite well. I think that the moisture mask makes the biggest difference for me when traveling on long flights, as the low cabin moisture often leaves me feeling like I just spent the last several hours traveling in a food dehydrator. Using the moisture mask keeps me from feeling nearly as dehydrated and I would highly recommend always carrying one with you, regardless of what cabin you are flying in, as not all airlines include them in their amenity kits.
The legroom is great, as one might expect, and my 6′ frame had plenty of room to stretch out. The seat is a bit narower than I am accustomed to in business class, with only about 20.5 inches of seat width. Some passengers might find it a bit too tight, but I thought it was wide enough for me for the 7-hour flight.
The In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) controller is pretty standard and, like pretty much all IFE controllers, seems to be a cross between a Super Nintendo controller and a Blackberry phone. On the backside there is a keyboard with buttons small enough that trying to use your thumbs to type anything out with it may well be a form of In-Flight Entertainment, at least for your neighbors.
The seat controls were pretty basic, with enough adjustments to get the lumbar support into a comfortable spot and a quick and easy set of buttons for turning the seat into a lie-flat bed as well as a button to return the seat quickly to the upright position for take-off and landing.
The headphones were definitely the weakest link for this particular business class flight. Unlike the Bose noise-cancelling headphones that are featured in JAL First Class, these Sony headphones were neither comfortable nor did they seem to do a very good job of cancelling out the noise from the cabin. They also featured very small ear cups, which I found to be rather uncomfortable compared to almost every other headphone option I’ve experienced while flying.
There were plenty of options for charging your electronics, as is usually the case in business class. Including a separate USB charging slot so you can power your laptop and charge your phone simultaneously.
Shortly after being seated the flight attendants came around with hot towels, which is always refreshing. To be honest, I can’t recall if they offered a pre-departure drink or not, as I had run into an old friend in the JAL Sakura lounge whom I hadn’t seen for 10 years! We both had a couple hours before our flights so we caught up over way too many glasses of beer and wine. So my memory is slightly hazy around the particulars of the pre-departure service, but I don’t have a picture of a glass of champagne on my phone, so I think it’s safe to assume there was no pre-departure drink.
I like to think of traveling in business or first class as a sort of “me time”. I disconnect from my devices and work. The wifi on my computer stays turned off for the duration of the flight and I instead focus on enjoying a nice meal, with plenty of wine, and watch a couple of movies.
So while WiFi was available on my flight (for a fee), I did not end up using it and don’ have anything useful to report regarding how well and how fast it works. To find out of if your JAL flight has WiFi service you can head here to find out which routes currently have service.
Shortly after takeoff they came around to take our dinner and drink orders. I selected the French red from the list of wines and they served it along with some Japanese rice crackers. I selected the Western option from menu and chose the “Wagyu” steak as my main.
The Western Hors D’ouevre was pretty good. I found the marinated mushrooms to be quite nice while I wasn’t very impressed by the Pork Rillettes. Pork Rillettes should be a flavorful spread of fatty deliciousness. This version was a bit dry and the shape was a bit too reminiscent of SPAM in my opinion. The greens were quite fresh and lent a nice counter-note to heaviness of the other components of the dish. I’m much more into free gluten than gluten-free, so I really enjoyed the fresh bread selection.
Which brings me to the “Wagyu” steak. I was hoping to carve into something tender and flavorful, granted Sirloin isn’t the ideal cut for this, but I might have assumed that having such a well-marbled animal might lead to even the less-juicy cuts having plenty of flavor and moisture.
Wrong! It was tough and not very flavorful. Not shoe-leather tough, but enough to motivate me to write an entire blog post lamenting the sorry state of steak on airplanes. The black currant sauce was absolutely necessary to make it through this little hunk of meat, as it provided some much needed moisture and also improved the lackluster flavor.
I couldn’t help but wish that the serving of steak was significantly smaller and the potatoes much larger, as they actually tasted pretty good. This is a conundrum I often encounter with Japanese airlines. They usually have a Japanese option, which is tons of fish, covered in fishy sauces and then sprinkled with some little dried fish on top, and a Western option, which is either fish or steak. I’m not into fish or seafood in general, though I always make an effort to taste as many dishes as possible, so the only option I am typically left with is steak. I love a good steak! But I have yet to encounter one while flying.
If I liked fish, I’m sure the Japanese option would be quite excellent. I can only imagine that they would serve some type of “Turduckin” type dish made of fish. Maybe a shrimp stuffed inside a crab, stuffed inside a Tilapia, shoved inside a Spanish mackerel with a row of Uni and then Bonito flakes sprinkled on top. They could call it “Sakana no bakuhatsu” which means “fish explosion” in Japanese and is likely what happens when someone goes too far at an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet.
After the disappointing steak it was on to the dessert, which was an apple pudding that they had formed into a sort of small bar and garnished with a single mint leaf. The taste was surprisingly light and not too sweet. A welcome break from the heaviness of the previous course.
By this point I was feeling far too stuffed to even attempt the cheese platter, so I turned on the In-Flight Entertainment system and began to watch a movie (“Ant Man And The Wasp”, for those of you wondering). I thought perhaps I might come back to the cheese at a later time, but that time never came. Instead I focused on the wine and enjoying my movie, which, unlike the steak, was much better than I had expected.
A little bit prior to landing I was feeling a little bit hungry again and I had fond memories of ordering Japanese noodles in JAL first class. I figured that the noodles in JAL business class might be a similar experience. I was quite surprised when they brought me a Cup O’ Noodles that had been specially branded for use on JAL flights. Considering that even the green tea they brought with the noodles was presented in a proper cup with a saucer, I would have expected the noodles to at least have come in a real bowl.
I felt like this was pretty much the equivalent of being brought a gas station microwavable burrito that they had scrawled the JAL logo all over. Yeah, in economy getting a cup of noodles is to be expected. I just have a hard time imagining that those paying thousands of dollars for their business class tickets are that excited about noodles from a cup. Considering that pretty much every other aspect of the JAL business class experience is so considered and polished, the instant noodles stood out like a sore thumb.
By the time I finished my Cup O’ Noodles, I mean JAL business class Udon De Sky, we were getting close to arriving in Singapore. My seat went back to it’s upright position, the flight attendants came through the cabin to make sure that everything was in order and we had a nice smooth landing in Singapore shortly thereafter.
So what were my overall impressions of my JAL business class flight between Tokyo, Narita and Sinagpore in the Sky Suite III seat?
Overall Impressions of JAL Business Class NRT-SIN Flight
The good: Private suite with enough privacy, 1-2-1 configuration with direct aisle access, plenty of leg-room, lie-flat.
The bad: A little narrow, no sleeping pad if you wanted to sleep, some might find the seat too firm, the headphones were uncomfortable and didn’t work well for noise cancellation.
The good: Always friendly and polite, felt like they really wanted you to feel comfortable, efficient without feeling robotic.
The bad: None. Service was quite good for business class.
The good: The appetizer, dessert and sides were pretty decent. I liked the wine as well, though it wasn’t anything special.
The bad: The steak! The Pork Rillettes (fancy-SPAM), menu really only let you choose between seafood/fish and steak. The dine anytime “JAL Original Snack Noodle” was just a cup of instant noodles.
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