JAL was established as a government owned airline in 1951 and was eventually privatised in 1987. In 1954 the airline operated its first international flight; to San Francisco. In 1960 the airline joined the jet age with a DC8 and the decade saw rapid growth for the airline with extensive new services offered globally. In 1974 JAL began flying to mainland China but was required to end flights to Taiwan as a consequence. In the 1990’s JAL was granted ‘fifth freedom’ rights for the US which allowed it to carry passengers between Vancouver and Mexico City and the US and Brazil. Japan’s government deregulated air travel in 1985. A year later JAL became Disneyland’s ‘official’ airline and several planes sported Mickey Mouse designs. In 2001 finances began to deteriorate and in 2005 JAL joined One World. By 2009 the airline’s financial crisis reached a head and vultures started circling. In 2010 the airline finally sought bankruptcy protection and the is busy struggling to restructure. The 2011 earthquake and Atomic energy disaster has reduced JAL’s passenger numbers.
Most Japanese passengers are dissatisfied with service on JAL while non-Japanese tend to find it OK. As a cost cutting measure the airline has employed large numbers of Thai and Chinese crew on lower wages. Most of them do not speak Japanese (or English). Crews tend to be respectful and do not interact with passengers. They take politeness to an extreme and serve meals with a smile. However cabin interiors are tired and the atmosphere is unexciting.
JAL’s network is too extensive and as a budget cutting measure is being reduced. The airline simply flew to too many unprofitable destinations and did not withdraw fast enough as profits disappeared. The airline has an extensive domestic network and services Europe, eastern Asia and North America well. They also have far flung routes to Sao Paulo and Australia. Flights between Australia and Europe include a free night’s stop in Japan which is simply fantastic. Not only does it break the journey but those who haven’t toured the land of the rising sun, are in for a wonderful taste of this fascinating country.
Japan Airlines provides good value for money. Their premium classes can be cheap compared to others, but are in need of updating and can’t be compared to prestigious rivals like Asiana, Emirates and Singapore Airlines, however if you’re after the leg room and plan to sleep it’s a bargain. Long distance Economy passengers can also score a good deal but service is basic. Domestic flights are occasionally cheaper than rail, but due to Japan’s brilliant train services a flight between Tokyo and Sapporo for example can take longer than a train trip once you allow for check-in and the trip to the airport.
JAL usually disappoints in the catering department. Vegetarian passengers have received a single banana as ‘a meal’! However First and Business Class catering can be served with perfection and occasionally can be described as a culinary work of art. Presentation skills on flights originating in Japan are superb while those on flights outside Japan are displaying signs of cost cutting. JAL typically serve a Japanese meal together with a Western meal.
JAL is unlikely to be upgrading its entertainment systems any time soon given its financial plight. Most aircraft do not have their Magic entertainment units of individual TV screens but they are slowly upgrading the fleet to incorporate them into long haul flights. Older planes will have a single screen showing Hollywood films with subtitles while newer aircraft have the works – films, TV shows, games and multi-lingual audio channels.
JAL provides excellent ground services by the politest staff in aviation. Check-in goes smoothly, dramas are avoided and luggage is treated with care. Baggage is transferred with amazing efficiency that shames Western airports and ticketing problems are resolved immediately. Most staff tend to ignore excess baggage which is a plus as their rates are unrealistically exorbitant.
JAL’s premium product is nice. However its competition’s is often fantastic. Interiors are relatively unexciting and often look quite dated. Seats are comfortable but do not compare with more prestigious airlines. First time Business travellers often express surprise that modern high-tech Japan has such an incredibly average airline as its flag carrier. The airlines Sakura lounges are equally unmemorable and often very crowded. JAL is a four class airline, with a Premium Economy class; ideal for budget conscious Sumo wrestlers who won’t fit in an Economy seat.
Economy class is rather average on JAL. Even their new aircraft have amazingly small looking seats which fortunately are more comfortable than they appear. Long distance passengers who avail themselves of the free stop in Japan usually say this is the highpoint of their trip. Otherwise, meals, entertainment and the overall package provides good value.
JAL’s Mileage Bank frequent flyer programme will earn points not only on their own flights, but all One World carriers and a large number of travel partners. But like other frequent flyer loyalty schemes JAL’s Miles are worth very little and the scheme is only of value to business travellers or those who travel extensively.
Compared to other airline’s executive teams, JAL’s are saints. Like most Japanese corporations, decisions are not made quickly and risks are not undertaken. The airline is in a difficult position given its massive losses and intense competition which it is losing. The Japanese government should really have let the airline disappear but didn’t. As a result management are rapidly downsizing and cutting with more humanity than found in the US or other cut-throat environments.
JAL has an embarrassing safety record and is quite comparable to third rate African carriers, however most of their accidents are not of their making. The airline has certainly been a victim of bad luck, but they do operate a rapidly aging fleet that they cannot afford to replace. Japan’s media have amplified the airlines safety woes which have led many to say the airline should go under.
A reasonably priced but surprisingly average airline in deep financial distress.
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