Air travel is a unifying force that brings people together. At the same time, it can be a great way to experience the differences between countries or cultures. I got to do just that during a trip to Japan, which had long been at the top of my destination list. My time on the ground exploring Japan’s teeming cities was amazing, but I also enjoyed experiencing Japan’s aviation world and how – in many ways – it differed from what I was used to in the U.S.
Read on for my two cents – or, rather, two Yen – on flying around Japan with one of its two flagship airlines: All Nippon Airways (ANA).
What’s With All the Wide-Bodies?
(Note: I’m referring to the planes, not the people)
The first thing that struck me after landing in Japan is how many BIG planes there were flying around, even on short domestic routes. Wherever you looked, there were 767s, 787s, and even 777s prepping for one-hour hops to other Japanese cities. Until not too long ago, Japanese domestic routes were also buzzing with high-capacity 747s. A look into the AirFleets.net database shows that yes, there are in fact way more widebodies (twin-aisle aircraft) in Japanese airline fleets compared to the proportion found in U.S. legacy carriers’ fleets:
But why? Well, for all the complaints there are in the U.S. about overcrowded airports, the issue is far worse in Japan due to its population density and lack of available real estate for airports. Japanese airlines simply have to fly bigger planes because each existing slot, runway, and airport must serve more people. When you look at the ratio of city populations to the number of runways that serve them (as a proxy for take-off and landing slots), I think the numbers speak for themselves:
Japan is a Planespotter’s Paradise
Let’s be honest: bigger aircraft make for more interesting plane watching, right? Personally, I think it’s way more fun to see a Dreamliner on departure (that wing flex!) than a dime-a-dozen 737 or A320.
But it’s not just the local fleets that make Japan great for plane spotting. The airports have some amazing observation areas. And from a few minutes at one, you can tell that AvGeek culture is alive and well in Japan – perhaps even more so than in the U.S. If you pass through Haneda or Narita, be sure to check out an observation deck or two.
ANA: Worthy of its Five-Star Status
Japan’s flagship carriers ANA and JAL have reputations for excellence in both operations and onboard service. ANA has the additional distinction of a Skytrax Five-Star rating, an exclusive club with only eight other inductees: Asiana, Cathay Pacific, Etihad Airways, EVA, Indonesia-based Garuda, China’s Hainan Airlines, Qatar Airways, and Singapore Airlines. My expectations were high before I got on ANA metal (or, eh, plastic as it may be), and in almost every way the experience delivered.
ANA gate staff run the most masterfully organized boarding process I have ever seen. Once onboard, I appreciated the crew’s considerate announcements, such as:
- “Turbulence does not affect the safety of this aircraft,” delivered after the seatbelt sign was turned on mid-flight. I think a lot of nervous flyers in the U.S. would appreciate hearing something like this.
- After landing: “You may turn on your mobile devices, but we ask out of consideration to other passengers that you do not speak on the phone until you have left the aircraft.”
Just like its home country, ANA combines consummate professionalism with a real sense of fun. The tarmac crew smiles and waves goodbye at departing aircraft. The safety video is adorably animated. And you’ve gotta love the Star Wars liveries.
Service was pleasant and efficient, though as with the rest of Japan it’s not a given that English will be spoken. The food on medium-haul international flights was delicious and portions were generous – more substantial than what I received on much longer transpacific flights on U.S.-based airlines. ANA’s special citrus juice, made with Japanese kabosu, is one of the most refreshing drinks I’ve ever had on a plane.
ANA was a wonderful ride, and I’d be eager to try JAL to see if the experience is comparable. Of note, JAL is a member of the oneworld Alliance with American, while ANA is one of United’s Star Alliance partners.
I had a great time broadening my AvGeek horizons in Japan. Now it’s time for the AirlineReporter community to hear from you. Use the comments section below to share your experiences and perspectives on air travel in Japan.