When Japan announced a significant relaxation of its pandemic-era border controls – effective early October 2022 – I swiftly discarded my plans for a European holiday and arranged a one-month adventure in my favourite destination country. Needless to say, that also involved choosing an airline to take me there and back again…
…and what better company for the job than the nation’s flag carrier.
Welcome aboard Japan Airlines flight JL 746.
Note: The information set out here pertains only to the specific flight reviewed. Cabin equipment, amenities, meal options and other details may be different on previous or future flights, even if operated by the same airline on the same route and/or under the same flight number.
For the sake of brevity, IATA airline and airport codes have been used throughout this report in place of full names (e.g., “JL” instead of “Japan Airlines”; “MNL” instead of “Ninoy Aquino International Airport”).
This review covers the first, outbound leg (MNL-NRT) of a round-trip MNL-NRT-MNL journey. Click here to read my review of the second, homebound leg (NRT-MNL).
Note: All times are local. There is a 1-hour time difference between Manila (GMT+8) and Tōkyō-Narita (GMT+9).
Airline and flight number : Japan Airlines (JL) 746
Route : Manila, Philippines (IATA code: MNL) to Tōkyō-Narita, Japan (IATA code: NRT)
Route type : International
Date : Tuesday, 08 November 2022
Scheduled departure time (MNL) : 09:40
Actual departure time (MNL) : 09:29 (from gate) / 09:44 (take-off)
Scheduled arrival time (NRT) : 14:55
Actual arrival time (NRT) : 14:11 (landing) / 14:17 (at gate)
Actual time in the air (take-off to landing) : 3 hours 27 minutes
Equipment and cabin
Aircraft : Boeing 767-300
Manufacturer : Boeing
Registration number : JA616J
Passenger capacity : 24 Business, 175 Economy (199 total)
Travel class flown : Economy Class
Here’s JA616J parked on the apron next to Gate 11 at MNL Terminal 1, as seen from the aerobridge I used to board it.
Delivered in 2007, this Boeing 767-300’s cabin was reconfigured into its present 24J-175Y layout six years later. The Economy Class section is fitted with JL’s “Sky Wider” seats, touted the “best in the world” on the airline’s promotional literature. A lofty claim to be sure – but, as I’d soon find out, not an empty boast.
As of this writing (10 December 2022), JL policy requires passengers to wear a face mask throughout the flight, except whilst eating or drinking. Limited exceptions apply. The exact wording as set out on their official website is as follows:
Passengers are required to wear a face mask.
Exceptions may be made for infants under 2 years of age and passengers who have medical conditions that would be complicated by wearing a mask.
For complete details on JL’s baggage rules, please refer to their official website.
AT THE AIRPORT
JL flights out of Manila are based at Terminal 1 (T1) of Ninoy Aquino International Airport (IATA code: MNL).
Further details regarding MNL T1 are available in a separate Airport Guide covering that terminal.
JL’s check-in facilities keep different hours at different airports, either tied to specific flight schedules or operating continuously from a stated time. (Full details are available on their official website.) At MNL T1, the JL counters open 3 hours before each flight’s scheduled departure.
Two exclusive counters were provided for Business Class and high-tier loyalty programme members, with most of the rest given over to Economy. One counter (on the far left, out of view above) was set aside for passengers requiring special assistance.
Right before check-in procedures commenced, the counter staff lined up and rendered a formal greeting to the assembled passengers.
A surprise, to be sure…but a welcome one. 😉
The check-in process was mostly routine, with the usual inspection of travel documents and weigh-in of luggage. One extra local requirement was a receipt to prove that I’d already paid the mandatory travel tax – a departure duty levied on Philippine passport holders and long-term residents – without which my boarding pass would have been held back. (If that had been the case, they’d have sent me to the TIEZA counter in the check-in hall to settle what’s owed.)
An additional pandemic-related step involved me showing a specific smartphone screen as evidence that I’d registered on the Japanese government’s quarantine control portal. At the time of my flight, the MySOS app was still in use and it was the one I presented. The app’s functions have since been merged into Visit Japan Web: a site that allows passengers to pre-register for paperless quarantine, immigration, and customs inspection ahead of arrival in Japan. Whilst not strictly mandatory, those who choose not to register their details online will need to have copies of vaccination or test details ready for inspection after landing, on top of having to complete the traditional paper forms for border control and customs.
The following video offers a helpful summary of the entry requirements for Japan. Even though these are current as of writing (December 2022), the entry procedures may change suddenly and without notice, either on the side of loosening or tightening as conditions warrant.
I was travelling in Economy Class and wasn’t entitled to lounge access. Had I booked a Business Class seat, I would have been admitted into the JL-operated Sakura Lounge near Gate 15 (airside).
The holding area next to our assigned gate was roped off with belt barriers. At the entrance, travel documents were inspected again and passengers’ carry-on luggage was hand-searched for items not permitted on board.
The seats within the holding area were not specifically segregated as to travel class or boarding priority. I did observe a single row of seats behind the staff counter, which might have been intended for passengers with special needs.
Based on what I observed after boarding got under way, the sequence shown below was strictly enforced by gate staff. Passengers joining the queue out of turn (as designated on their boarding passes) were asked to step aside.
My seat was close to the front of the Economy Class cabin, which placed me squarely within the last boarding group. No matter – being that far forward on the plane would pay dividends after arrival (as we’ll see later).
Off we go.
Cabin interior and seating
Each of JL’s Boeing 767-300 aircraft is fitted with one of several interior configurations. JA616J’s had a Business Class cabin occupying most of the forward fuselage, with six rows of four flat-bed JAL Sky Suite II seats each (total 24).
There was no Premium Economy cabin on this aeroplane. The following images show the first row of the Economy section, which was directly aft of the bulkhead separating Business from the rest of the aircraft interior.
Ordinarily I’d take reference pictures of my own row to show the seats, legroom, and so forth, but the aisle seat was already occupied by a passenger who had boarded in the first priority group. To avoid causing discomfort or inconvenience, I focused on my window seat’s immediate area (or wider shots of the cabin) for all future images taken on the flight. Suffice it to say that my seat was physically identical to those in the bulkhead row shown above, except that the tray table and IFE screen weren’t stowed in the armrest as they were mounted on the seat back ahead of me.
Speaking of the seat back, let’s have a peek at that now.
Coat hook? Check. Always a useful feature. (I have a very low opinion of airlines that don’t supply at least one coat hook at every seat, regardless of class.)
There’s an admirable range of storage options here, with little net pockets and niches for anything from mobile phones to eyeglasses. I note, with appreciation, the presence of a USB-A charging port – though I’m afraid it stops at appreciation as my usual charging cables are of the newer USB-C standard (rendering this feature useless).
Let’s glance a bit further down and assess the legroom.
Mm. Roomy. Indeed the most space I’ve had in cattle class for…well, ever. (Barring bulkhead seats and exit rows and so forth.) The seat itself is no slouch with its generous width, comfortable upholstery, and adjustable headrest.
And now let’s look up at the ceiling panel.
Mm. Nothing interesting up there. Let’s carry on.
My seat was 17A, third from the front of the Economy Cabin and a bit forward of the wing. This gave me quite decent views of the outdoors with just a bit of wing and engine intrusion.
Time for the customary wide shot of the cabin. This was taken before the curtains separating us common peasants from the high and puissant aristocracy up front were drawn shut.
Observe the generous 2-3-2 configuration of this aircraft’s Economy cabin. Forget the cattle class stereotypes of microscopic seats and sardines-in-a-tin: this is easily the roomiest non-premium aeroplane interior I’ve ever had the pleasure of flying in. Even the heavily state-subsidised Middle Eastern juggernauts like QR or EK don’t have it this good in the commoners’ commons (and to be fair, their Economy cabins are quite decent on the whole).
Right, so much for the hardware. Time for a look at the soft product.
In-flight service and amenities
Let’s go through the sequence of service as rendered during the flight.
At boarding time, I found a pillow and plastic-wrapped blanket already laid out on my seat.
The seat pockets contained a wrapped set of headphones and the usual assortment of onboard literature. (And an air sickness bag, of course.)
About 20 minutes after take-off, the cabin crew distributed blank immigration and customs forms for use at Japanese border control. I’d already filled out their electronic equivalents on Visit Japan Web (and received QR codes for each), so I didn’t need to fill out the old-fashioned cards.
15 minutes or so later, passengers were offered hot oshibori (moist hand towels).
A nice touch, and not something I’m accustomed to seeing outside of Business Class.
Meal service began roughly ten minutes after that…but as always, this deserves an entire section of its own.
Right, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the in-flight meal. 🙂
This being peasant class, there were no fancy foil-lettered menu booklets waiting at my seat when I boarded. But a quick trawl-through of the JL website did reveal the following Economy menu for the MNL-NRT route (November 2022 version).
Pork Hamonado with Steamed Rice
Simmered Radish & Eggplant with Minced Meat Sauce
Cajun Chicken & Waldorf Salad
Chocolate Banana Cake
Coffee / Tea / Green Tea
Now for a look at the beverage menu.
JAL Original Drink
“SKY TIME Peach & Grape MIX”
Cold Green Tea
Still Mineral Water
You’ll observe that apart from beverages, no alternative options were offered on JL’s Economy Class menu. Just one main course and a fixed set of side dishes. Of course, passengers with specific dietary requirements are catered for – I noticed the cabin crew going down the aisles with wrapped special-meal trays well before the start of general lunch service – but this is something you’ll have to arrange at the point of booking or otherwise before the flight. Once on board, it’s “take it or leave it”.
As it happened, I had no objection to any of the items on offer so I was happy to accept the tray as-is. (If the main course had been seafood-based though…ouch. This fish-hating, crustacean-allergic chap would have gone hungry.)
So, here’s lunch as originally served…
…and with the covers off. The beverage in the cup is my choice from the menu: JL’s SKY TIME original drink, a chilled and rather tasty blend of peach and grape flavours.
Great variety of nibbles we’ve got here, I must say.
I’m not a huge fan of pork myself – beef is my meat of choice – unless it’s been processed beyond recognition. (I quite like pork products like sausages, bacon, mmm bacon, lots of bacon, more bacon here please…ahem…ham, prosciutto, luncheon meat, etc.; I’m just not well-disposed to the texture, aroma, or unaltered natural flavour of whole pork meat.) That said, there was very little I found objectionable about the juicy, thick, tender slices on my tray, nor about the richly flavoured sauce it was covered with.
By the time I was done, every single dish and plate on my tray had been scraped clean. Proof enough, if it were needed, that JL’s catering successfully delivered both satisfaction and taste.
Towards the end of meal service, the cabin crew went around offering tea and coffee. I chose to partake of neither but appreciated being given the option.
In-flight entertainment and internet access
Every Economy Class seat was fitted with a personal monitor. The IFE system could be controlled either directly on the screen (via the touch interface) or using a remote control unit tethered to the seat back.
The supplied headphone set wasn’t noise-cancelling, but that’s just par for the course in Economy Class.
There was a foldout card in my seat pocket describing the onboard WiFi service (with detailed connection instructions printed inside).
I didn’t try the service myself – seemed like an unnecessary expense for a relatively short flight – but it might help some to know that this option exists.
ARRIVING IN JAPAN
Three hours and twenty-seven minutes after lifting off the runway at MNL, our wheels touched the ground at NRT.
So much for the flight itself. Now for the difficult part: getting through the border of a country that, until very recently, had been on full-on coronapanic footing.
Although most of Japan’s draconian pandemic-era entry controls had been scaled back by the day of my arrival, things hadn’t quite returned to normal.
As a real-world example, I present the following summary of my own arrival experience (originally posted on a travel forum shortly after I landed in Japan). Note that this reflects the entry process as observed specifically at NRT on 8th November 2022; procedures might differ somewhat at other airports and changes may have taken place since that time. I should also emphasise that the MySOS portal mentioned here has been phased out in favour of Visit Japan Web (“VJW”), which should now be used for all pre-arrival registrations – quarantine, immigration, and customs.
I registered my vaccination details on MySOS a few weeks ago and received a blue screen within a couple of hours. (Note: This was BEFORE November 1st when the quarantine functions were integrated into VJW.) I did a separate registration on VJW for immigration and customs, and instantly received QR codes for both.
Cabin crew distributed blank immigration and customs forms during the flight. I chose not to fill them out since I’d already pre-registered for both on VJW.
After we landed at NRT (note: I flew with Japan Airlines), the cabin crew announced that passengers should remain in their seats until the quarantine officers at the airport communicated their instructions about who should disembark first: (1) passengers entering Japan or (2) passengers transferring directly to other flights. (I suspect this varies depending on which checkpoint is more crowded, inbound or transfers.) Surprise surprise, everyone ignored this announcement and stood up immediately after the aeroplane docked.
Once the doors were opened, cabin crew announced that passengers entering Japan – myself included – should disembark first. Those transiting at NRT without entering Japan (easily identified via the large yellow-bordered “TRANSFER” tags on their hand luggage) were politely but firmly asked to resume their seats or stand aside. Needless to say, getting off the plane was easier said than done as the aisles were clogged with transfer passengers who had ignored the earlier announcement and were not immediately next to their original seats.
On the long walk from the gate, I immediately connected to the free airport WiFi and loaded up my QR codes. I showed my blue screen to one of the staff who handed me a blue card, which in turn allowed me to swiftly clear the checkpoints all the way to the final quarantine counter. After turning in the blue card, my QR code was scanned, I was handed a slip of paper with health precautions etc., and then they waved me towards immigration.
Staff members checked to see whether passengers were in possession of either (1) a VJW immigration QR code or (2) a completed paper form. I showed my QR code and was allowed into the immigration queue. The process was essentially the same as before the pandemic – photo, fingerprints, sticker in my passport – except that I didn’t have to turn in a paper form (the officer simply took my phone and scanned the code).
After collecting my luggage, I queued up at a kiosk where I scanned (1) my passport’s information page and (2) my VJW customs QR code. The kiosk took my photograph – mask off for that bit! – and then I marched over to an e-gate. I removed my mask a second time, walked though the first set of gates which closed behind me, the camera recognised my face, the second set of gates swung apart…
…and welcome to Japan. (^_^)
All told, the process took 20-30 minutes or so from aeroplane to exit. The main bottlenecks were A.) on the plane itself whilst we waited for an announcement on who was to disembark first (plus I was in Y not J so no priority disembarkation), B.) at baggage reclaim (again, Y passenger so no priority tags), and C.) at the customs kiosks where quite a number of people were in the queue to use them. Had I arrived at a less busy time and/or had I been travelling J, the whole thing might’ve been done with in 10-15 minutes.
JL was the airline I flew with on my very first trip to Japan, back in the spring of 2009. I didn’t know it then, but that first journey to this strange and exotic corner of the world would spark a lifelong obsession, a deep and abiding interest in its history and culture and…well, if I had to be specific, its trains and castles. It was also the start of an annual travel tradition (now at 21 visits and counting) that would be interrupted only by the deepest darkest years of the pandemic. It’s quite fitting that I’ve now chosen to fly again with the first carrier to take me to a place I now regard as a second home, a happy escape from the toils and dreariness of life back home.
Sentiments aside, I really was quite pleased with JL’s performance on this flight. I’ve travelled in the Economy Class seats of a good few airlines through the years: not one even comes close to the comfort and spaciousness of the JL cabin. Clearly, “Sky Wider” was no empty boast; I felt as well taken care of in my seat as if I’d been in Premium Economy. Having just one person between my window seat and the aisle (as opposed to the usual two) left me feeling less trapped than usual, on top of simply making it easier to squeeze through for a lavatory break. The food was excellent – despite the lack of choice for the mains – and the in-flight entertainment was more than adequate for a 4-hour regional hop.
Granted, JL isn’t the most cost-effective option on the busy, highly competitive MNL-NRT route. Indeed, this was the main reason why I didn’t use them again for so long after that first journey in 2009. With multiple airlines to choose from – including several budget carriers – JL simply tended to price itself out of the running whenever I made arrangements for holidays in Japan. I’m glad I gave in to the urge to, shall we say, splash out a little for this long-awaited return trip (without spending a fortune on Business or First Class of course), because I saw for myself that where Japan Airlines is concerned…
…one does tend to get what one pays for. With a little extra on top.
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