Inaugural Flight, San Diego-Tokyo Narita - Boeing 787

Back in June, U-T San Diego announced that Japan Airlines was launching their new nonstop service from San Diego to Tokyo Narita. Ordinarily, this would be a neat thing in itself -- the flight itself has the potential to bring business to San Diego, as well as the convenience of not having to fly or drive to Los Angeles to catch another flight to Asia.

But this was no ordinary inaugural flight out of San Diego – it was the launch of JAL’s service on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, one of the most advanced aircraft in the skies today. Decidedly, I was going to be on that flight, so I called American Airlines and booked the flight in Business (JAL calls it ‘Executive Class’) with no issues using 50,000 AAdvantage points (all of which I acquired through Citibank’s 75,000 AAdvantage points with $4,000 spend American Express card).

Honestly, I was surprised – when I booked the flight on June 18, 2012, I figured that award inventory would be blocked out completely, but I was wrong – the AAgent told me that she saw ‘plenty of inventory’. Not going to hedge a bet, I booked it right then and there, and was leaving San Diego on JAL65 to Tokyo Narita on beautiful, new 787-800 for a total cost of $27.50.

As we’re taxiing towards the runway (ahem, via car), we notice that there’s already a gripload of media and (who I assume are) aviation geeks like me, anxious to see the 787 land.

Upon arriving at Lindbergh Field’s Terminal 2 East (the “international” part of our airport), I could already tell it was busy, and it was just a hair past 9am (scheduled departure was 11:30am). As my traveling companion and I got to the ticketing area, it was a zoo – complete chaos – trying to check in and drop off our bags. As I was traveling in business, their dedicated line was much shorter than the economy line – though not really any better speed-per-person. The wait, really, wasn’t that bad – though the airport employees (there were a TON of AA staff) were all very apologetic for the delay. Hey – it’s JAL’s first flight out of San Diego. I’ll cut them a lot of slack today – I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.

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Once the two of us got our boarding passes, we headed for security – of which we sped through as we had the opportunity to go through the first/business class security line. 

As we approached Gate 20 we could already tell it was quite an event – there were three musicians playing, and a huge (amazing!) food spread, complete with shrimp things, chicken things, rice-and-beef things, tea, coffee, and “American apple pie”. The catering company who the airport authority selected was top notch.

Commemorative cake

The outstanding catered spread, with both Asian and a-twist-on-American snacks.

Chris, my dear friend and traveling companion, and I posing in front of the backdrop.

A three-piece...band?

I was told this model 787 had been in the Airport Authority's office for some time, and that they were sad to see it go. I can understand why!

After noshing on a few snacks, there was some hoopla coming from the window – JAL66 landed, having arrived from Tokyo Narita. After taxiing for a few minutes, the airport fire company greeted it with a traditional water cannon salute – which confused a lot of people who weren’t expecting it.

Then came speeches – ranging from the chairman of JAL (who is returning to Japan on our flight), to the protocol officer of San Diego’s Mayor Jerry Sanders, and the Consul General of Japan (out of Los Angeles) and the regional director of American Airlines.

Eventually, the ribbon-cutting ceremony to great applause.

By this point, we were already running late – it was around 11am, and boarding hadn't started. That was okay, though – I kept noshing on the awesome food.

Eventually, we began to board. Nothing out of the ordinary, except each passenger was handed a gift bag, in addition to the gift bag we received when we entered the event area. Kudos to the San Diego Airport Authority's photog for snapping this photo of me as we boarded.

There was a good amount of personnel between the gate and the aircraft, starting with airline officials. As I learned after booking the flight, bowing is a very Japanese custom to express respect -- and there was a lot of bowing between the gate and the aircraft by various airline officials and me.

When you walk in (door 2L) to the 787, the first thing you notice is the ceiling – it’s really high. It gives you the feeling of spaciousness – something that Boeing wasn’t shy about promoting – and it works.

Upon entering, I didn’t have to go far – I was in 7A, the first seat behind the bulkhead next to door 2L. It was a very clean cabin – but then again, it was the second time this aircraft has held revenue passengers. And yes, it even had that “new airplane smell”.

I neglected to take photos of the seat while "flat", but I was not impressed. Admittedly, it was my first angled lie-flat experience. Although I knew it was angled lie-flat before I booked the flight (and obviously the flight was not about the seat specifically), I must say that it's the most startling bit of disappointment I had with the flight. I barely slept either direction because I just could not get comfortable. While I'm certain it was more comfortable than sitting in cramped coach (as Chris reported to me), I almost would bet that I'd sleep better in a window seat in coach. Really -- angled lie-flat, especially when most other carriers have moved to total lie-flat -- is a step backwards. I've had the opportunity to fly on United, British Airways, and US Airways premium products -- all lie-flat -- and JAL's seat was truly a disappointment.

One of the flight attendants took my jacket, and immediately offered me a newspaper. Ironically, the top front cover of the day’s U-T San Diego was about this aircraft, and about this flight.

Executives from JAL were on the ground to wave us off. Heck, a lot of executives were. Finally, we pushed back.

We finally approached the end of the runway, but we sat there for seemingly an eternity. Part of it was the adrenaline, I assume – but then I noticed two incoming flights that were on approach aborted their landing. A user on airliner.net mentioned that the 787, during taxi, tripped runway sensors -- causing a United A320 and 757 to be forced to do a go-around.

Engines spool up, and it felt like we went from zero to…fast…real quick. Might be something to do with those big GenX engines.

Seemingly another eternity after takeoff, a flight attendant brought a selection of champagne or orange juice. I took the champagne and began a movie -- which, additionally, had Japanese subtitles which couldn't be turned off. Irritating.

A menu was passed around; I opted for the Western meal. I would've ordered the Japanese meal (it looked amazing!), but I have this weird phobia about eating fishy things at 30,000 feet (see the movie Airplane!).

Bleu cheese and dry fruit dip (delicious, though it was an odd combination)
Almonds, manchego cheese and smoked duck (the duck was odd, and I've had plenty of it).
...and a martini.

Marinated scallops (excellent)
Tuna pastrami (mediocre)
Foie Gras mousse (illegal in California -- I assume we were no longer in California airspace by the time this came around!)
The rolls were nothing to write home about.

(a choice of)
Deconstructed beef Wellington

The steak wasn't bad -- it was definitely above-airplane-food-average. The pastry was a little cool by the time it arrived, though it was, again, above average.

(or) Lobster Thermidor (again, that whole fish thing -- though I know lobsters aren't fish). I didn't see anyone around me order it.

Special dessert – panna cotta, with a special piece of white chocolate commemorating the inaugural flight. Outstanding.

At some point, I had to use the lav. I neglected to take a photo of the toilet, but they did offer some toothbrushes and mouthwash as amenities in the lavatory itself. There was no amnity bag per se, but the amenities were handed out individually as well.

One of the other amenities included a pair of slippers; they weren't especially large (though my feet are around a US size 9-10, they kept falling off).

People keep asking me one big question about the 787: what's the neatest thing about the plane?

Without a doubt, it's the windows. They're large -- really large, at least seemingly so. They dim. They change colors. They allow you to see outside without any bright light shining through. To be honest, all the other advancements of the aircraft wind up being rather innocuous; you can't "feel" the composite nature of the aircraft, and the higher pressurization levels inside the aircraft don't strike you as soon as you walk through the door. The LED lighting is kitchy, and only is noticable inflight.

What you really do notice are those darn windows. Truly spectacular. In the photo below, the window was set at around 80%, but I was still able to see outside with minimal sunlight actually coming through -- especially nice since this flight to Tokyo was an all-daytime flight.

 

"Early evening" lighting

"Late evening" lighting

Late-flight vegetable curry (available on the "anytime" menu, orderable up to an hour before landing). It doesn't look very appetizing (most curry doesn't) -- but it was probably my favorite meal on this aircraft.

Additional gifts given during the flight to commemorate the inaugural flight. Awkwardly, the flight crew mentioned at the beginning of the flight that 'Japan Airlines has been operating nonstop flights from San Diego to Tokyo Narita since the second of December 2012'...on the second of December 2012.

Aircraft Christmas tree ornament

Commemorative luggage tag

Getting closer to Tokyo

Another view

All in all, the trip was excellent. Admittedly, for some time, I was more excited about the inaugural flight and surrounding activities than I was about the adventure to Japan -- until a week or two before the flight. Then I couldn't wait to explore Tokyo. But despite some disappointments with JAL, they were limited -- and I can say I would easily recommend taking this flight again if your adventures take you to Tokyo Narita. Not only because it's a direct flight, not only because the in-flight service is excellent, not only because the aircraft is outstanding, but also because overall, it was an excellent flight.

Each time a new, major route is established at an airport -- particularly in my home city of San Diego -- it has the potential to bring new jobs, opportunities, and money to the City. In this case, the San Diego area has many giants who do major amounts of business in Japan and Asia -- and providing a direct link to that area makes San Diego that much more attractive to others potentially considering doing business (or wanting to vacation!) in our fine locale. Major kudos to my friends at the Airport Authority for making my trip to Japan onboard a brand-new Boeing 787 Dreamliner possible -- it's a job well done.

 

On that note, I'll leave you with YouTube user sdkoka's video of my return flight's landing:

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