In which our hero travels from Tokyo to Boston in a single bound

11 min read

Last week, I was in Taipei for As usual the conference was well put together and had lots of tasty food.  After the conference, Audrey, Luke and I spent a few days working on new features for Checkmarkable, my startup Prime Radiant's product. I also met one of the guys behind Vortex keyboards and scored myself a sexy new KBT Pure 60% keyboard, but more on that another day.

 I spend a lot of time on airplanes. Specifically, I spend a lot of time on Oneworld airplanes.  Typically, I visit Taiwan once or twice a year. Nobody flies directly from Boston to Taipei. The most convenient flights for me to get from Boston to Taipei have historically been Boston-Chicago, Chicago-Tokyo and then Tokyo-Taipei.  I like having a convenient excuse to visit friends in Tokyo.

 As I was booking this year's trip to OSDC, I started fiddling with dates to see if I could shave a few hundred bucks off the somewhat heart-stopping fare that first popped up.  When I added a 3 day layover in Tokyo, the flights that came up were a little different than usual. Tokyo-Boston travel time was shorter by about 4 hours and the flight that popped up was a codeshare on JAL. (That it showed up as a direct flight wasn't the first thing that caught my eye. AA 154 shows up as NRT-BOS, but involves a layover, customs clearance and a plane change at O'Hare.)

 And then I noticed the equipment it said JAL would use for the flight - 787 - Boeing's new Dreamliner. I started poking around flyertalk and yep, JAL was coming to Boston - using the 787 for the first regularly scheduled route between Asia and Boston.  I dithered for a couple days and managed to miss getting a seat on the inaugural flight. As soon as _that_ happened, I clicked the "buy" button so I wouldn't miss my seat on the second 787 flight to Boston.

 Usually, I try really hard to fly on American Airlines "metal" for longhaul international travel -- The frequent flyer perks they give me every year include a few free upgrades for just about any flight, so long as it's on one of American's planes.  12+ hours in coach is typically a pretty brutal affair, but I was willing to make an exception...just this once.

 Because it was booked as a codeshare, I couldn't find any way to select my seat online. It seemed like it wouldn't matter very much even if I could -- JAL hadn't posted the seatmap for the 787 yet. (They wouldn't actually take delivery of the planes until March 27th.)  With a little bit of digging, I found out something interesting about how JAL assigns row numbers. Row 45 is always the exit row.

 So I called American.

"Hi, I'm flying on JAL 8 on April 23. Is there any way you can assign me a seat now?"

'Sometimes they let us. Sometimes they don't. I'd be happy to try for you, Mr Vincent.'

"Great! Is there any chance that there's a window seat in Row 45?"

'How's 45A?'

stunned silence

"...ok. That'd be great!"

This was the second flight of JAL's new 787 service to Boston. It was already mostly full. JAL's frequent flyers can book these seats online. And nobody had picked the exit row window.

Several weeks passed. I flew to Taipei. I spent a couple days in Tokyo. I saw Karen and Marty. I ate a bunch of incredibly tasty food.  I wandered around Akihabara.  

JAL lets you check in online up to 72 hours before your flight. American and JAL use different reservation networks, so my flight had an American PNR (Passenger Name Record - that 6 letter record locator code) and a JAL PNR. My American PNR wasn't letting me check in on I called up American and got my JAL PNR. That didn't work either.

This is when the most impressive and astonishing part of my travel experience happened. Sunday night, I opened up to confirm my flight details for the next morning and noticed the "Check in online" button at the bottom of the screen. This button has almost never worked for me for international flights on American. And this was a codeshare. I knew that pressing this button would show me a nice error message about how my flight wasn't actually eligible to check in online. When I clicked the button, nothing happened. I clicked it again. Nothing happened again. And then I noticed the "Popup blocked" message in the browser's URL bar. I allowed chrome to show me the error popup.

It wasn't an error popup. redirected me to and checked me in online and then emailed me a boarding pass. Airline IT isn't actually supposed to _work_.

Scrutinizing the boarding pass, I noticed my sequence number. (Most airline boarding passes show a number indicating the order in which passengers checked in)

   SEQ: 186

So, I was the 186th person to check in for the flight, a good 14 hours before departure. On most longhaul international flights, that number wouldn't be exceptional. On JAL's 787, it's a little surprising - It is a 186 seat aircraft. I haven't gone digging too deeply - It may just have been a bug or some nuance of JAL sequence I'm not aware of. Or I might indeed have been the last passenger to check in for the flight.

It took me...9 minutes from stepping off the Skyliner at Narita to the JAL Lounge.

I got to the gate about an hour before departure. Sure, I could have hung out in JAL's lounge longer, but DREAMLINER!  The departure area was already half full. And our plane was already at the gate, which wasn't too surprising. JAL 787 #1 wasn't actually back from its maiden flight to Boston yet. This plane was brand new.

It was parked next to a BA 777. Compared to the gorgeous curved wings of the 787, the 777 just looked...clunky and dated.

More people were taking pictures of the departure board than the plane. Go figure.

Boarding started about 10 minutes late. The fabled arched entryway of the 787 was...nice, but nothing to write home about. . o O { Though I suppose I just have }

I walked back through Business and the first bit of economy to seat 45A. Before I got there, I didn't really know what to expect. I could have had a cold, cramped little seat with no window. That sometimes happens in exit rows. But no. The seat was fairly roomy (very roomy for JAL). It reclined. The video monitor and tray were in the armrest.

And if I stretched my legs out as far as I could, I could just barely use the emergency exit door as a footrest.

The 787's windows don't have shades. They have a dimmer that lets you set 5 levels of blue-tinted transparency.  I immediately started playing with the window's controls. The windows don't go all the way opaque, but the darkest setting is enough to keep the interior pretty dark, even in bright sunlight.

Speaking of windows - They promised us a window in the bathroom. That one does have a shade...when it exists. No such luck in JAL Economy.

The interior of the plane definitely felt roomier and airier than a 767, though not much more spacious than a 777. Not bad for a plane with 10 rows of Business and 17-odd rows of Economy.  Boarding was mercifully quick - the plane was full, but there just weren't that many passengers.

Before we took off, a flight attendant brought over the "responsibilities of passengers in the exit row" cards and asked if we'd be willing to follow crew-member instructions in the unlikely event of an Japanese. Apparently, I nodded well enough.

Our taxi out to the runway took 20+ minutes. On the ground, the 787's wings are incredibly bouncy. I know they've passed some impressive wing-break tests, but it was just slightly terrifying.

It was a gray, rainy day - takeoff was a little bit bumpy and the flight didn't really even out for about 45 minutes.

Inside, the 787 is quiet, but not astonishingly so. You can't forget you're on an airplane.

JAL's inflight entertainment system was..decent. It was snappy and actually registered touches when you touched the screen. The interactive maps were pretty and responsive.  The "I'm working" watch cursor made it pretty obvious that (like many IFE systems) it was running X (and presumably Linux.)  Unfortunately, I'd already seen every movie I wanted to of their relatively thin selection.

The IFE had a feature I've never seen anywhere else....ebooks. In this case, branded as "JAL Sky Manga" - They say that they're working on an English version, but for now, it's all in Japanese. They had a few dozen manga to choose from, divided into general interest, Boys' Manga and Girls' Manga. I think the most surreal part of it was the pageturn navigation -- To go to the next page, you click the left arrow on your remote. To go to the previous page, you click the right arrow. It makes perfect sense. Japanese books start from what I, as an American cultural absolutist would call the "back" of the book.

In coach, we were fed 3 times. The first meal was a choice between chicken curry and something described to me as "Japanese Pork" - In general, the flight attendants spoke to me in Japanese. I know enough food words that this wasn't actually a big deal (and I know they spoke to other Western passengers in English. Go figure) Desert after the first meal was a "Boston 1955" Mr Donut ice cream sandwich.  The ice cream was light and airy and a little bit too frozen. 

The second food service was a cup of soup and a Danish.

The third food service was...clam chowder and "AIR MISDO" - I know you're all dying to know if JAL can pull off a competent New England Clam Chowder.  I'm a bad New Englander - I don't really like chowder on the best of days. I chose to skip the airplane chowder.  I'm sorry I've let you down.

AIR MISDO was...reasonably decent. A pair of small, cakey donuts. One with chocolate and sprinkles. One plain.

I spent most of the flight coding. If you know me, that should tell you just about everything you need to know about the flight's comfort. The 787 has in-seat universal sockets at every seat. Mine cut out for 30-90 seconds every 20 minutes or so, but on the whole behaved itself.

One of the cool things about the 787 is that, because it's made of carbon fiber instead of aluminum, they can keep it pressurized to something that approximates sea level much more closely than any plane you've ever flown on. Coming off the plane, @rasmus asked me if I'd noticed the difference. Indeed I had. Usually, I feel fairly...freeze-dried after 13 hours in a small tube in the sky. I felt a lot less shattered than usual after this flight.

As we were disembarking, the staff were handing us each a card:

Arriving at Logan, we appeared to be the ONLY plane at the international part of Terminal E. 11:30AM isn't exactly a common time for flights to and from Europe  and nobody else is flying from Boston to Asia. A quick Global Entry scan and I was through passport control and down at the baggage claim. The siren started screeching, the conveyor started rolling bag was the first one to drop onto the belt.

From there, I made my way to Terminal B and had lunch with @schwern and @noirinp, who were on their way to PDX by way of DFW.

After lunch, I collapsed into a cab and made my way home to a pair of very cross cats who quickly forgave me for my long absence and a very, very long afternoon before finally collapsing into bed at a respectable 10pm.

Overall, I was really quite impressed by the 787. It's a nice, comfortable modern aircraft. I'd totally fly to Tokyo in Economy on JAL's 787 service again.

I have a few more pictures up on Flickr.