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The First Class Premium on Other Airlines

The First Class Premium

Part 1: Tracing the evolution of First and Business Class on Singapore Airlines
Part 2: How does First and Business Class compare on Singapore Airlines?
Part 3: Number crunching First vs Business Class on Singapore Airlines
Part 4: How does First and Business Class compare on other airlines?


Now that we’ve seen how First and Business Class compare on Singapore Airlines and how you decide whether you want to shell out the premium, let’s finish off this mini-series by looking at how First and Business class compare on other airlines.

It’s relevant to consider this question even if your primary currency is Krisflyer miles, because of the several sweet spots we’ve discussed on the Star Alliance award chart.  Also, if you’re a Lifemiles buyer, you might be in a position to choose between First and Business Class on the airlines below (and at 78,000 for a one-way business class ticket from Singapore to the States versus 99,000 for first class, it’s not always a simple choice!)

Here are some airlines where I’ve flown both First and Business Class and my observations on whether First Class is worth the premium.

Thai

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Thai is a confusing one because it has 3 different types of Business Class products across its widebody fleet. If you’re on their A380s or 77Ws, you get a 1-2-1 full flat configuration. These are good enough seats in and of themselves, but because of the layout of the cabin you will have 2 couples seats every other row (see the second photo below) which can be super awkward if you don’t know your seatmate.

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If you’re on the 747, A330, A340, 772 or 773, you get the old angled flat seat. This seat is definitely not worth redeeming your hard earned miles for.  It is very open with little privacy, and you can just feel yourself sliding off it in the second photo…

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If you’re on their newest 787 Dreamliner, you get a 2-2-2 full flat configuration. These aircraft do not offer First Class.

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photo credit: 2madames

This is the same seat I reviewed previously on my IAH-GRU flight on United. I thought it was a comfortable enough seat but it scores no points for the loss of privacy from having a seatmate even at the sides. It’s definitely a step up from the angled flat product, and I would think long and hard about whether I’d spend my miles on this if it were my only option (and try to get one of the centre 2 seats so I’d have unobstructed aisle access)

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Now, Thai only offers First Class on its A380, 747 and A340 aircraft (which, as per my understanding, are not flying anymore)

If you’re on the A380, you’ll get this

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photo credit: svenluckermans.com

On the 747, you will either get the new First Class product (which, to add to confusion, is not the same as the First Class product on the A380) with 9 seats in the cabin. This is the product I reviewed recently on my journey to New York.

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Or you will be suay and get the old “pod” version with 10 seats in the cabin. If it’s any consolation these are mainly operated on domestic routes- I’ve flown HKT-BKK on a 747-400 before.

Photo of HS-TGX Boeing 747-4D7 by Patrick Teubner
photo credit: jetphotos.net

Therefore, if you’re on any aircraft other than the A380, it’s a straightforward decision to go for First Class over Business if you want a flat seat. If you’re on the A380 you’ll need to decide whether you value the additional privacy and service of a Suite over the 1-2-1 business flat configuration.

As for other parts of the inflight experience- I thought the F&B experience in F was very mediocre. On an overnight flight to Tokyo this was the sum total of the dining experience. It is as every bit as appetizing as it looks. At least they served Dom…

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Service wise I didn’t sense much of a difference between First and Business. It was perfectly functional, if not lacking the same warmth you find in Asian crews (it could have been the language barrier)

Of course it’s also relevant to consider the ground experience. Thai’s Royal Orchid Spa in BKK is split into 2 sections where J passengers get a choice of a 30 min back or foot massage, and F passengers get a choice of a 1 hour full body massage. Some people feel this is worth the one time splurge. I think it’s certainly novel to get a spa treatment in an airport, but if you’re in Bangkok anyway…

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I like Thai on the whole, but I think their product just doesn’t have the same aura or premium feel that other Asian Airlines (SQ, NH, BR) has. If I had to choose between First and Business on Thai, I’d still try and spring for First, but I would ideally try and see if other airines with award space plied the route as well.

Lufthansa

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Lufthansa recently finished installing full flat seating in First and Business across the entirety of their fleet.

The new business class seat is a welcome step up from the old angled flat one, which I had the misfortune of encountering on a long haul flight from MUC-GRU.

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It kind of reminds me of Thai’s old business class in a way.

The new seat, on the other hand, is a marked improvement over the old one.

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However, as much of an improvement as the new business class seat is, it’s hardly industry leading. It’s in a 2-2-2 configuration, without all-aisle access. To make matters worse, the way the seats are designed make it inevitable that at some point you’re going to be playing footsie with your neighbour. If you’re in the window seat, it’s difficult to access the loo without waking up the person in the aisle.

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photo credit: onemileatatime

Lufthansa is planning to launch a new Business Class product in 2020 which will be common across Austrian, Lufthansa and Swiss (all of which are owned by Lufthansa), and hopefully this should see them going with a 1-2-1 configuration

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Swiss Business Class on 77W

So even though Business is full flat, I still feel there’s a case to be made for splurging on First when it comes to Lufthansa.

Here’s the First Class seat for comparison

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Lufthansa’s First Class seat is amazing- it has a full range of lounging positions and deploys into one of the most comfortable beds I’ve had in the sky (second only to the SQ Suites bed in my opinion)

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F&B wise, in Business Class you’ll get hearty if unspectacular food. Here are some of the items I had from BOM-MUC and MUC-GRU.

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That said, the culinary options in First Class are, in my opinion, only a marginal step up from Business. For instance, you’ll get Taittinger vintage champagne

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And a full caviar service, with all the traditional garnishes

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But the rest of the meal was very mediocre and unappetizing. Lufthansa could learn a thing or two about plating.

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On the ground, Lufthansa First also has the most amazing First Class Terminal experience if you’re departing out of FRA. You should definitely read the full report but here are some highlights.

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So I think that I’d only spring for Lufthansa F if it were departing out of FRA, just to get the FCT experience. That’s purely a once off thing, though. Subsequently, I think I’d be ok with Business if I were able to get one of the two seats in the centre or if I were flying with a companion.

ANA

ANA is one my absolute favourite airlines for travel in any class. And presents to me a rare conundrum- both the business class and first class are such great products that I could easily justify going for either.

Here is ANA’s business class (you can read full reviews here and here) seat.

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The seat is extremely comfortable and private. It extends into a full flat bed. Every seat has aisle access. If your goal is to get there with a good rest, this product is good enough.

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The catering in ANA business class is not to be sniffed at either. On my flight from Bombay to Tokyo the menu was designed by the Taj.

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The champagne on offer is Canard-Duchene, but they also have a great selection of other drinks including premium Japanese sakes.

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Service wise ANA is excellent in all cabin classes and I’d be hard pressed to say that First is necessarily much better than Business.

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ANA First Class offers a sleeper suit, Krug champagne and caviar service at meals (albeit as condiment and not a proper course in and of itself, like on Lufthansa. Or maybe that was just the flight I was on)

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Your meals will be multi-course Japanese wonders. To be honest I didn’t care for most of the items but that’s because I’m a philistine. I’m sure a true gourmand would appreciate them. Frankly I was happy enough with the simpler meals in Business.

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Ground services wise is where there isn’t much of a difference. I don’t think ANA’s First Class lounge is a big improvement over their Business. They’re both perfectly alright but they’re not worth arriving early for. The photos below are the First Class lounge.

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And these are the business class lounge photos. It’s pretty much the same, sans champagne.

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For me, I’m happy enough with ANA’s J product to grab it immediately when I see availability on Lifemiles. I would splurge on F if it were a special occasion, but as good as that product is it’s really more like icing on the cake.

Conclusion

Let’s be honest- picking between First and Business Class is probably the biggest first world problem there is. But still, you’ve worked hard to earn those miles, so you might as well stretch them.

This is but a small sample of the products out there, but I hope it gives you a better idea on what the gap is between First and Business class on other airlines.

The Long Way to New York: ANA First Class NRT-ORD

Singapore Airlines SilverKris Lounge, Singapore
Singapore Airlines Business Class SIN-BKK
Thai Airways First Class Lounge & Spa, BKK
Thai Airways First Class BKK-HND
Getting from HND to NRT
ANA First Class Lounge, NRT
ANA First Class NRT-ORD
United Club ORD
United Economy ORD-EWR
Visiting the US Open
Sheraton New York Times Square
Hilton New York Midtown
Wingtips Lounge JFK & Delta to DC
Exploring Washington DC
Element New York Times Square West
Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, JFK
Singapore Airlines Suites JFK-FRA
Lufthansa Senator Lounge FRA
Singapore Airlines Suites FRA-SIN


I’d reviewed ANA’s First Class before when flying from Seattle to Narita. My conclusion was both the hard and soft product were excellent, and would measure up to SQ any day of the week. That said, the trip was more than a year ago and I was keen to see whether ANA could continue living up to the high standards they set the first time round.

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The gate wasn’t too far from the lounge so I arrived just as boarding began. I love how in Japan all the boarding staff gather in a line to bow to the passengers before boarding begins. It’s just so quintessentially Japanese. If you happen to look out the window when the aircraft pushes back from the gate, you’ll also see the ground staff bowing. Only in Japan.

ANA’s long haul First Class product is called the First Square. Here’s what it looks like in the publicity photos.

Image of ANA FIRST SQUARE seats

And here’s the First Class seat IRL. The high walls of the suite provide serious privacy, and although the seat is finished in cloth rather than leather, it doesn’t really affect the comfort factor.

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I was greeted by the chief pursuer at the door and escorted to my seat, 1F. She was bubbly and probably the very definition of lao chio. After introducing herself and the flight time for today, she looked super apologetic and said-

“Unfortunately Mr Wong, you are the only passenger in First Class today.”

I blinked. She was either having difficulty with syntax, or believed that I was the type who relished the contact of other human beings. I assured her I would endeavor to survive this disappointment and set about taking photos like there was no tomorrow.

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Normally when I board an aircraft it is a mad rush to snap as many photos as possible before the cabin fills up and people (A) get in the way of my photos or (B) believe that taking photos is somehow a great threat to aviation security and start getting tetchy. But today I was having a veritable pick of the litter in terms of shots and angles.

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I’m sure that more than adequately covers all the seat photos you need. Suffice to say that the 1-2-1 layout of the 8 seats, the high walls of the suite, the width and the legroom afforded are all excellent.

But just in case that’s not enough, here is the user’s manual. That’s right, they provide a user’s manual at every seat.

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The seat has a ton of useful storage spaces. Here’s a holder just for your reading glasses.

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There is a small storage closet where you plug in your headphones.

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Here are your usual assortment of charging ports (only 1 USB port though, boo)

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IFE wise they were still using one of the older systems. Although I’m not a big fan of the new touchscreen IFE interface that SQ has because it’s prone to hanging.

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The seat controls are all digital on this mini detachable wall tablet here. The only thing that is perhaps slightly confusing is that it’s not immediately apparent how you adjust the seat outside of the 3 preset modes. You click the bottom right “Adjuster” and you’ll get a menu that lets you recline at whatever angle you wish.

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There are even separate buttons to control the light around your feet.

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There was a variety of goodies waiting for me at my seat. ANA has its usual excellent Sony noise cancelling headsets for First Class passengers (spoiler alert: SQ has upgraded from Bose QC15s to QC25s in First Class, look out for that in the return Suites trip report)

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A sleeper suit was also offered. There is actually both a cardigan and a set of PJs (top and bottom). ANA doesn’t have a branding tie up for their PJs (like CX and Shanghai Tang for example) but the PJs are still top notch.

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There was also an amenities kit by Samsonite. The crew comes by with a basket and lets you pick out additional amenities above and beyond whatever you already have in the kit. I wanted to keep the kit intact for a giveaway, so I got an extra eye mask, earplugs, toothbrush, leg refreshing sheet (this has to be a Japanese thing because I had no idea what they were used for), socks and 2 of the lip balms (they’re Shiseido branded and really good)

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Now I’m personally fine with Samsonite, but there was a big hoo hah on the travel bloggersphere when ANA replaced their old Rimowa kits. Here’s a photo of what the amenities kits used to look like a few years ago.

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photo credit: one mile at a time

The chief pursuer came back with a selection of magazines. I always find magazine selection on aircraft to be a very pressurizing decision. On the one hand, I would very much like to indulge in the mindless hedonism of Men’s Health. On the other, I feel my choice of reading material is highly self-reflective.

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I decided in the end on the selection above, choosing Time Magazine in particular because I love its kid friendly approach to adult issues.

The captain came on the PA to welcome everyone aboard NH12 to ORD airport. The flight time would take approximately 11 hours and clear skies were expected.

I settled in very contently and took a look at my connecting UA flight to remind myself of the intransigence of luxury. Seeing United and “FY” never seemed more appropriate…

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After takeoff the crew came by with the menu. I’ve found ANA’s catering to be excellent (but then again, Japanese are so proud of their food culture it’s hard to imagine anything else)

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The drinks list was spearheaded by an old favourite…

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And there was an excellent snack menu with many options. This is where ANA is head and shoulders above SQ, in my opinion. Even in First Class SQ’s snack selection is limited to a few prepackaged items and instant noodles.

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Before proceedings started, the champagne was brought out.

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And after pouring, it was time to start with the accompaniment to the aperitif.

Now, it could be that I’m something of a slack jawed yokel, but I just couldn’t figure out what the amuse bouche was supposed to be.

So here is supposed to be “Dressed scallops and dried sea lettuce with yuzu citron pepper, burdock roots rolled with conger eel, smoked salmon trout mousse with broccoli flavor and soft dried beef rolled with watermelon radish”, but for the life of me I could not figure out which was which.

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In any case I wasn’t big on the flavours. I’m sure this is a carefully thought through and conceptualized dish and a non-Philistine would be able to enjoy it, but i sort of mashed it up and moved it around so the crew would know I was done with it.

The next course had salt-steamed sea urchin, simmered abalone in soy sauce, Japanese tiger prawn sushi, grilled beef and Japanese leek with teriyaki sauce and simmered Akita Nikaho-shi fig in grape juice. Again, lovely plating, dainty eats, but at this point I wish I had just gone with the Western selection.

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Fortunately, the next course was a bit more familiar to my tastebuds- a surf clam sopu and prawn fishcake

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After which some seared bonito was served.

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We finally made it to the main course.  This featured simmered herring and eggplant in soy sauce, dried maitake mushroom, kombu kelp with herring roe and red king crab meat and steamed Greenland halibut. The fish was amazing. How ANA manages to get a delicate fish to hold up so well in the air is beyond me. There was also excellent Japanese rice to go with it.

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For desert I went with the fruit platter. Most of the fruit was so-so, but I realised in the top left hand corner- could it be?

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It was muskmelon, the real king of fruits that I had been hankering for ever since I tasted a small piece back in Singapore. At a $150+ price point back home, it’s certainly out of my budget, but if you remember my RTW trip report I managed to get a mid range melon at about $50 during my pop out from the airport in NRT. That melon was orgasmic.

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Back to the present. After telling them how much I loved Japanese melon, the crew were more than happy to give me the rest of the melon they had on board. It’s probably a bit telling of how expensive this is that they only load 4 pieces in total on board.

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Heaven.

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Oh, I got some B&J vanilla ice cream too.

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And some pralines.

After the meal I went to the bathroom to freshen up while the crew prepped the bed. ANA has probably gone the conventional route with their loos. Nothing fancy (apart from the bidet, which is any way mandatory on all Japanese airlines) regular sized loos with a nice selection of amenities. Will Emirates and Etihad continue to be the only ones crazy enough to put a shower onboard?

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The crew were waiting to take my clothes after I’d changed into PJs. There were 2 bottles of Evian waiting at the made up bed, which is every bit as comfortable as it looks.

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You’ll note that the bed is really private- from the side it’s very difficult to look in.

 

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I slept a solid 6 hours and woke up for a snack. Here’s the fried chicken, ramen and chicken rice bowl from the snack menu.

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After eating, I went for another nap only to have to wake up again for breakfast before landing. It’s a hard life.

Breakfast was a more simple affair- just one tray with fish, rice and soup.

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I found the fish to be way too bony, but the crew managed to get a different kind of fish from somewhere in the galley.

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I don’t need to say how amazing the service was because every interaction with the crew was a pleasure. It’s also the small things- I had some coins in my jeans pocket which I guess must have fell out when the crew took my clothes to hang them. They put the coins in a small ziplock bag and brought them over. They also gave me a set of ANA postcards just before landing. 20160903_204807

We landed on time in ORD, where I had about 2.5 hours to connect to my United flight to EWR. Given that I had my APEC card, I wasn’t really concerned about immigration queues but there weren’t any in any case.

When it comes to First Class, ANA’s overall product is definitely up there with the best of the best. The food, the service, the seat all make for an amazing experience. If you’re into Lifemiles, you will be happy to know that ANA F space is frequently available (99,000 miles from Singapore to USA, one way. Not bad considering SQ would run you 93,750 at the saver award level, if available. Much fewer surcharges through Lifemiles though, I paid maybe $60-70 in total)

After that amazing experience with ANA, it was time to snap back to reality and that started by visiting the United Club in Chicago’s domestic terminal…

The Long Way to New York: ANA First Class Lounge NRT

Singapore Airlines SilverKris Lounge, Singapore
Singapore Airlines Business Class SIN-BKK
Thai Airways First Class Lounge & Spa, BKK
Thai Airways First Class BKK-HND
Getting from HND to NRT
ANA First Class Lounge, NRT
ANA First Class NRT-ORD
United Club ORD
United Economy ORD-EWR
Sheraton New York Times Square
Hilton New York Midtown
SPG Luxury Suite @ The US Open
Element Times Square West
Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, JFK
Singapore Airlines Suites JFK-FRA
Lufthansa Senator Lounge FRA
Singapore Airlines Suites FRA-SIN


The bus from HND had arrived at NRT Terminal 1 with slightly under 2 hours to spare. Terminal 1 at NRT is where all the Star Alliance carriers congregate.

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ANA has a special First Class check in on the far side of Terminal 1. Much like SQ’s special check in area in Changi Airport, this is just a more private place to do the formalities, not really a place you want to hang around for long.

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The First Class check in area is open to passengers travelling on ANA, Lufthansa, Austrian, Swiss or United, but interestingly not Singapore Airlines (which operates First Class on flights to and from NRT)

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I like the minimalist design of the area. A lot of empty space, standing counters for both staff and passengers. You really don’t linger here. you “do the needful” (how’s that for a shout out to my readers in India) and get out of there.

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I  mean you could sit in these very nice leather armchairs and stare at the wall if you wanted to.

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But really your goal is to egress through that small exit on the far side of the photo above.

Once through there you have access to a priority security screening queue (which, it should be noted, is not the same queue as the Star Gold priority line. This is 2 checkpoints dedicated just for users of the ANA First Class check in facility. After that, it’s downstairs to immigration (which is a combined line, there is no special immigration queue for ANA First Class, Star Gold or the general populace), which I cleared very quickly thanks to my APEC card. 

Past that and you’re headed to the lounge. ANA operates two lounge facilities in NRT Terminal 1 at Satellites 4 and 5. Both lounges are more or less the same, with separate sections for First and Business Class passengers. Satellite 5 opens slightly earlier (630am) than Satellite 4 (700am). Also, Satellite 4 has the Star Wars arcade game that I enjoyed so much on my previous visit.

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I was at Satellite 5 today. My first destination was the shower rooms because the hypochondriac in me was wondering when was the last time Thai changed its air filters on its ageing 747s.

ANA does not have separate shower suites for First Class passengers. Both Business and First Class share the same facilities. The difference is that First Class passengers get a special Shiseido set of bottled toiletries to complement the single use packets available in the shower.

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ANA’s shower suites have their own loos with those wonderful Japanese bidets that confirm again the Japanese are light years ahead of everyone else. I do wish SQ would create individual shower suites instead of having the showers smack in the middle of the toilet, but maybe (maybe) we’ll see that when they finally finish the overhaul of their SIN lounges to match the “home” concept.

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The lounge itself has great views of the tarmac. I saw one of ANA’s many 787s. The airline is going to face a major headache with the 787 as they seek to replace faulty turbine blades across all 50 787s.

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And hello,

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The First Class lounge is definitely a lot more spacious than the Business Class lounge and less crowded. I remember back on my RTW trip when I was flying J with ANA I could barely find a seat to sit down during peak periods. The lounge was currently perhaps a third full.

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ANA has a few static displays scattered around the lounge to remind you of things you can buy onboard

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And status you can aspire towards. These are the luggage tags issued to ANA one million milers.

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On to the food- I wasn’t unduly blown away by the F&B options. I find the food in ANA lounges to be very basic, and it’s really a let down given the rich and storied food culture that Japan has. You’d think this would be a great opportunity to display a bit more of that.

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There was a selection of prepackaged snacks

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A cold item bar with salad leaves and sandwiches

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Some Japanese cold snacks

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A selection of Japanese pastries

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As for hot items, there was a strange take on Western food (steamed veggies, sausages and bacon)

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Japanese omelette (which was still moist and liquid on the inside. I was very impressed)

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Some steamed egg cakes and salmon

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And there was very excellent Japanese rice, as you would expect from any Japanese carrier. I love the cult status to which Japanese elevate rice, I really do. It perhaps rivals my obsession with pasta.

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There was also the noodle bar, a mainstay of the ANA lounges. You can get ramen, udon and Japanese curry with rice here.

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Drinkswise, there was the usual selection of soft drinks, the self pouring beer machines and a good choice of liquor

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Unlike the Business Class section, the First Class has champagne available.

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It was 9 in the morning but I figured I was on vacation so…

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I start to wonder if this is the single defining moment I will point out to my AA sponsor some years down the road. “I knew I had a problem when it was 9am and I still wanted champagne…”

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The lounge had the same business facilities as the one in Satellite 4. The only other difference I could really think of is the lack of a dedicated sake bar in Satellite 5

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I think SQ and ANA are much alike on the ground. They’ve got a solid offering no doubt, but clearly their strength lies in the air (I will say that SQ’s overall First Class experience on the ground still edges ANA thanks to the presence of The Private Room).

With about 30 minutes to go I left the lounge and headed for the boarding area. I’d flown ANA’s First Class product before but was eager to see how the experience this time round would measure up…