This Summer I had the good fortune of taking a long haul flight and several regional flights with both Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines. We won’t feature detailed trip reports on all of them but here is a simple comparison of some elements of the experience. Different aircraft and routes have different configuration and service so this is not meant to be authoritative – it is simply a snapshot summary based on the flights which I took.
Cathay’s ground staff are consistently good. JAL’s were well groomed, helpful, and also made a bit more effort in a typically Japanese way to inform me, for example showing me a seat map and so on.
It’s hard to beat Cathay’s flagship lounges in Hong Kong in terms of design and comfort. Their outport lounges were less impressive, although the same was true of JAL. JAL’s flagship lounge had a slightly better quality of drink and food than Cathay’s flagship lounges, although less service.
Seat and onboard comfort
Both seats were fully reclining but neither was fully enclosed. Both lent themselves to a comfortable night’s sleep, but I’d opt for the JAL one. It doesn’t feel as narrow as Cathay’s at the feet. The table and television are also much better designed – they slide along effortlessly so that one can pull them in or out at will. That is not true of Cathay’s screens, and the tables are quite annoyingly designed so that they need to be brought out of storage, which in itself can be tricky as they are quite heavy, and obscures one’s view of the screen. The design used by JAL is much more seamless.
JAL had high quality amenity cases with decent amenities, as well as a gender specific Shiseido skincare kit in its own case; Cathay’s amenity case was not quite so impressive but still serviceable. I have heard complaints about high cabin temperatures on JAL planes – I didn’t notice this particularly.
Food and drink
Cathay’s catering has come in for a lot of criticism lately about declining standards and rightly so in my opinion. First is definitely much better than business. However, up against JAL I’d say that JAL has an edge – the food was slightly better, and the presentation was much finer. As one may expect, where JAL excels is in Japanese food options, which beats Cathay’s equivalent hands down. For western meals it was more of a toss up. I found that Cathay’s western breakfast was better than JAL’s.
Both airlines had good though not outstanding wine lists. Yes, the champagne was excellent – the best being Krug on Cathay and 2004 Salon on JAL. I regard Salon as a finer champagne but think both are good first class champagnes. I found Cathay’s wine list a bit pedestrian, the highlight being a 2007 Branaire-Ducru. JAL had a Talbot, which I much prefer, albeit it in 2012 vintage. JAL also had a better selection of premium sake and shochu, although I didn’t partake for the most part.
Cathay and Japan Airlines offer different styles of service. Cathay’s is sophisticated and rather unintrusive. On JAL there is a combination between a slightly maternal streak (like old school British Airways) and the Japanese art of predicting service needs precisely. I consistently found the service on JAL to be spectacular, although some may find it overbearing. On Cathay the service varied between good and excellent and was more subtle. The cabin crew was frequently in the cabin on JAL – on Cathay that was not the case except during meal services, but they did tend to keep a close eye on the cabin.
Speaking English it’s easier to communicate on Cathay.
Cathay’s inflight entertainment system is the same across all classes in terms of content and it is excellent. There is a broad range of entertainment in different languages and to suit multiple cultural tastes, including recent releases, classics and more. Japan Airlines, in common with other premium east Asian airlines, has a much more limited English language selection and it tends to skew more towards the American than a more mature, globalist collection.
The Cathay screen was large although JAL’s seemed larger and was also directly in front of one so easier to see.
There was no wifi on any of the Cathay flights, whereas all of the JAL flights had wifi and as a first class passenger I was offered a complimentary voucher on each one.
It’s horses for courses really – I’d gladly fly first class on either airline in future. All other things being equal, I’d choose Japan Air Lines over Cathay for the quality of food and drink and service style, but that’s a personal preference.