This is Part 1 in a series summarizing my February-March 2020 trip to Japan, taken just before COVID-19 became a pandemic. You can read about my decision not to cancel the trip and a brief overview of the trip here.
I’m not sure how much I’m going to end up blogging my Japan trip, but this post was mostly written, so, here we go. Back in February, I explained my decision to go, even though there were some concerns about COVID, which, at that point, had not reached pandemic status. In retrospect, I don’t regret that decision. Japan didn’t really have a significant COVID case load until weeks after I left, and things didn’t get wonky here in the States until after I returned. At the same time, COVID did affect my trip in some ways which will probably be quaint in retrospect. I thought about not blogging about the trip at all, but figured it would at least allow me to reminisce about what was actually a very good trip—even if the experience is unlike anything anyone will likely experience again.
As a reminder, my trip had me going to Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Osaka. The outbound leg was an AA award booked via New York on AA and Japan Airlines. When I originally booked the flight way back in April 2019, there was business class availability on JAL’s nonstop from JFK to Haneda, which I figured was a great use of 60,000 miles. The only downside was that American simply didn’t have a DCA-JFK flight that would get me to New York in time for the midday departure. So, initially, I was booked on DCA-JFK the night before, and was going to spend the night at the Hilton Garden Inn JFK Airport, where I’d spent the night before my flight to Victoria Falls in 2019, and then connect in the morning.
Closer to my flight, AA restored a better DCA-JFK schedule (sensibly connecting its domestic hub with one of its international hubs), so I rebooked all of my travel on one day. And then about a week before the flight, I noticed that there was availability in First Class on the JFK-HND flight. It’s only 20,000 extra miles for that award, and I figured I’d splurge as I had the miles, and called and made the change. The agent told me it would be 20,000 extra miles, and we were all set.
But then the next day when I logged into my account, I saw I actually had 26,000 miles less. I had forgotten that I had booked the original award back when AA still gave a 10% mileage credit to its credit card holders, so the initial award had only been a net cost of 54,000 miles. AA didn’t simply collect an additional 20,000 miles, but rather canceled the award, crediting 54,000 miles to my account, and then rebooking it at the 80,000 mile level. At the time, I had regrets as I don’t know if it was worth that many extra miles. But in retrospect, since I’m not using miles to travel anytime soon, I’m glad I did it.
I won’t actually cover the JAL flight in this post, as I figure that deserves its own post. So I’ll cover the trip up to New York, which was my first time flying in an AA premium cabin in awhile, and then the transfer and lounge experience at JFK Terminal 1.
American Airlines Flt. 2654 Washington-National to New York-JFK (DCA-JFK)
Boeing 737-800, Domestic First
Sched. Dep. 8:30am Sched. Arr. 9:59am
Actual Dep. 8:23am Actual Arr. 9:29am
I was at DCA by 6:30am for my 8:30am flight to JFK. This would be my first American flight in close to a year, so I was curious how I’d find the experience. The woman at the priority check-in counter was…honest. I had one standard large suitcase plus a backpack, and she said, “Wow, you’re going to go to Japan with all that?” (Do people not check a standard suitcase when going to Asia?) Tagging my suitcase, she added a priority tag, saying, “I’ll add this, in case it matters.”
I was at the DCA Terminal B Admirals Club by 6:40. The agent at check-in said, “If you want a bottle of water or a mimosa or something premium, just show the bartender your boarding pass.” (On previous visits when I was flying international First, they gave vouchers/chits, but I guess this prevents people from giving them away.) Inside, the club was the exact same small club it’s been since my AA elite days. While bloggers are always talking about the AA Flagship Lounges, the Admirals Club is far more indicative of the airline. The food options were some plain bagels and mini-muffins, yogurt, hard boiled eggs, oatmeal, cereal, and what may have been fruit. There was a lot of staff, but they were all talking amongst themselves or in the kitchen.
I had a day of eating ahead so it wasn’t that big a deal. They were setting up the new “Avocado Toast” station as I arrived, which opened at 7am. I figured I’d try it, but don’t think I would again. It was all cold, including the toast, which they pretoast in batches. I accompanied it with a mimosa, which took awhile. After the bartender scanned my boarding pass, the first small bottle of champagne she poured was completely flat, which she noticed. She then disappeared for a while before coming back with a new one, informing me I still had a second drink if I wanted it.
The club was pretty quiet at first, but got busy and pretty full. About 15 minutes prior to scheduled boarding, I headed to the gates. There was no pre-boarding announcement or welcome or anything that I heard, but suddenly I head “Concierge Key/Group 1 to JFK…we’re now ready to board.”
Even in the before times, AA’s DCA-JFK schedule was all over the place, varying based on season and days of the week. For winter, they were doing two daily mainline 737s (morning and evening) and one late morning regional EMB 175. Being on a 737 in first is thus probably more meaningful than it would be on a regional flight. At boarding, the flight attendant at the door offered to take my jacket, and soon after I was seated, another flight attendant came by to ask about PDBs. Unfortunately, the hard-product on AA’s 737s is pretty budget-carrier, even in first. The seats are wide, but not particularly comfortable. There was a blanket on each seat and there is in-seat power—but I couldn’t get either the USB port or the AC port to work despite several cords, and there is no IFE screen. The plane I was on had flown the red-eye from PHX the night before and I imagine my butt would’ve hurt so many hours in that seat.
The flight was actually one of the strangest I’ve ever been on. First, the first-class cabin was completely full—with sixteen passengers. But there were only a total of twelve passengers in all of coach. I’m not sure if the fact that the flight was only added onto the schedule a few months before played a role. But AA has really downplayed JFK as a connecting hub on its own flights over the past few years, and there aren’t that many midday connections anyway, either on AA or on its partners.
Second, there was a guy two rows ahead of me in first who was talking at a non-inside voice to his seatmate the entire flight. It started at boarding, and kept going. I put headphones on, and I could still hear him. Then as soon as we were airborne, the guy in front of me fully reclined his seat, and the guy behind me tapped me to close the window shade, neither of which seem necessary on a 47-minute flight leaving at 8:30am.
The service was good, though. Once we were airborne, Morgan, our friendly lead flight attendant came back around to take drink orders, and I figured I had to try a Truly, given AA has only recently started stocking them onboard. Shortly after, the premium snack basket came around. I didn’t have time to finish my drink, and by 9:20am we were on the ground at JFK, and I was in AA’s Terminal 8 at 9:34am.
Lounge-Hopping at JFK
I had about 2.5 hours til boarding of my next flight, so I could’ve stopped at either the Flagship Lounge or Bobby Van’s Steakhouse at T8, but decided I just wanted to get to Terminal 1, where JAL flies out of—which is super annoying. (While many other Oneworld partners have moved to AA’s way-too-big even pre-pandemic Terminal 8, JAL is unlikely to since it still owns part of T1.) There’s no airside connection and no sort of escort service or anything for First Class passengers. Instead, I had to escort myself to the Airtrain, which took about fifteen minutes, even at a fast-walking pace. And even though I’ve taken the Airtrain dozens of times in my life? I got on the wrong train and found myself heading to Jamaica. Thankfully I caught the mistake early and switched at Federal Circle (where car rental and hotel shuttles are), and the train going the other direction had T1 as its first stop. Not a big deal, and I was at T1 by 9:58am.
Terminal 1 was pretty empty that time of day, as the only flights within three hours were JAL flights to both Narita and Haneda, Korean to Seoul, and Turkish to Istanbul. (Evening at that terminal can be a zoo with all the Europe-bound flights.) I wasn’t sure if I needed to, but I stopped at the check-in counter, where the friendly agent did something to associate my AA baggage ticket with a JAL ticket, gave me new tags, and reprinted my boarding pass.
This was the first time I saw anything COVID-related on the trip (remember, this was mid-February 2020)—the agents working economy, and only those agents, were wearing surgical face masks.
JAL used to contract with VIP One Security for First Class passengers to escort them through, but now there’s nothing special. Precheck only got you to the front of the line for the single metal detector, and the line moved slowly as there were rude TSA agents and a lot of language issues with passengers. Still, I was through at 10:15am.
I had access to three different lounges. As a JAL First passenger, I could access the Lufthansa Senator lounge. And with Priority Pass, I could access the Air France lounge and then-new Primeclass lounges. I ended up visiting all three. In terms of food and beverage options (again, pre-pandemic), the Senator lounge was the best. But it was also the most crowded. In terms of a space, the Air France and Primeclass lounges both had pros.
Air France Lounge JFK
I had heard the newly renovated Air France lounge was lovely, so I started there. The biggest advantage of the Air France lounge was just how empty and quiet it was, given that there were no flights that use it around that time—just Priority Pass. The whole time I was in the large, two-story lounge, there were under 10 passengers. There is a range of seating, outlets everywhere, and everything feels fresh. There are huge windows, making for a lot of natural light….but they face the highway.
The beverage offerings were strong, with a self-serve bar featuring 10 or 12 wines, beer, champagne, and liquor, as well as juices, soda, water, and Nespresso. The food offerings on the other hand were quite sparse—I imagine they are increased at times of day when Air France passengers are in. There was one tray of bagels, some cheese and charcuterie, some rolls, and packaged chips and cookies. The staff was invisible, but that’s fine.
Lufthansa Senator Lounge JFK
After an hour, I figured I’d check out the Lufthansa lounge. As a First Class passenger, I had access to the Senator Lounge, upstairs. (The actual First Class lounge on the third floor was closed.) The one large room was more crowded than the Air France lounge had been, with both Turkish and JAL passengers at that hour. There was a staffed bar and a much heavier buffet than the Air France lounge- with two soups; a hot buffet with eggs, noodles, and meatballs; and a cold buffet with salads and sandwiches. There was also the standard Lufthansa candy and snack jars, along with self-serve soft drinks and pastries. I wasn’t very hungry, but grazed.
Primeclass Lounge JFK
I then headed to the gate area around 15 minutes before boarding; it was pretty crowded and didn’t have great seating. I saw the then-new Primeclass lounge, which accepted Priority Pass, right there, so popped in. There was a glass cube kind of entry area on the ground level, and then the actual lounge space one level down. I didn’t stay long, but it was actually a very nice space with a variety of seating styles/areas.
There was a small buffet with chicken wings, rice, vegetables, and meatballs; bread and rolls; and cold salad stuff. In another area, there was a small dessert area with self-serve coffee and soft drinks. As a Priority Pass guest, there was a limited alcohol menu at the staffed bar where you could get two drinks.
I only stayed ten minutes, but it actually was the nicest of the three spaces (and newest), and only had a few passengers. Then, it was time for my flight.