North Korea’s flag carrier commenced services in 1954 as CAAK (Civil Aviation Authority of Korea) with a varied collection of Soviet made turbo-props providing VIP services and flights to its communist neighbours. The airline’s first domestic service began in 1970 and the arrival of their first jet in 1975 allowed them to commence a ‘milk run’ flight across the USSR to Eastern Europe. The aircraft’s limited range necessitated numerous stops. The first direct flight to Moscow began in 1983 with a longer range Illyusin IL-62 being added to the fleet. Berlin was added to the network in 1987 and Sofia (Bulgaria) in 1989. The collapse of the Communist Bloc resulted in the airline slashing services. CAAK changed its name to Air Koryo in 1992. 'Koryo' is a friendly Korean word that means 'thought, consideration or regard'. As Soviet era aircraft have reached their expiry date Air Koryo has stuck with Russian aircraft and have ordered modern Tu-204’s which are comparable to Boeing 767’s and Sukhoi Superjet 100’s which are similar to the Brazilian made Embraer E-195. In March 2006 Air Koryo was banned from European Union airspace over safety concerns, however in 2010 the restriction was partially lifted, but the airline is yet to resume services there. In 2008 Air Koryo commenced charter services to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Kuwait City for intrepid holiday makers. During the political thaw between North and South Korea during 2003-8 the airline flew between Pyongyang and Seoul. As part of a modernisation larger jets were fitted with seat back IFE (in-flight entertainment) units and in October 2012 Air Koryo joined the internet-age by launching on-line booking services.
Passengers expecting terrible service will be pleasantly surprised to discover Air Koryo crew are young, attractive, friendly and nicely attired, however are unlikely to speak English. As Air Koryo’s crew are ambassadors for their beleaguered country they make an effort to be pleasant and diligent. Meals and drinks are served with a smile and the overall on-board experience is favourable. Aircraft interiors are standard and seats are modern and comfortable.
North Korea isn’t large, geographically and has a well developed railway network which is the nation’s preferred mode of travel, however Air Koryo do operate an extensive domestic network serving 10 destinations with its hub at the recently refurbished Sunan International Airport, 24km from Pyongyang’s central business district. Internationally Air Koryo operate several routes to China and also provide links to Russia, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Kuwait. While North Korea is a fascinating tourist destination few actually venture there so demand for flights is limited. Air Koryo also operate a cargo division with domestic services and international freight services to China and Russia.
Air Koryo is not cheap but is excellent value for money because of the uniqueness of the flying experience. Aircraft buffs will be excited to fly on well maintained Russian built planes which are practically non-existent in the West. Most flights will come as part of an all inclusive package holiday organised by companies like Japan-based Chugai Travel or Beijing based Koryo Travel which are highly competitive. For memorability a North Korean holiday is number one and it begins the moment you cheak-in on an Air Koryo flight.
Stories of food shortages in North Korea do not apply to Air Koryo as their airline provides a tasty meal service and portion sizes are generous. Like most airlines menu choices are an inoffensive mix of local and international cuisine served with North Korean beer, wine, spirits and non-alcoholic drinks. All meals and drinks are included in the prices and there is not a single carrier in the US that can beat Air Koryo by serving better meals for economy passengers.
Air Koryo’s long range Tu-204 jets have been retrofitted with individual in-flight entertainment units which show a limited range of Korean and Asian films that comply with North Korea’s communist world view. Each seat has its own LCD screen with headphones. As well as movie selections there are audio and information channels which are more interesting than entertaining.
Few North Koreans speak English while many in the airline industry will speak Chinese or Japanese. Nervous North Koreans who are unable to communicate will be shy and sometimes passengers my mistake the shyness for rudeness. Check-in facilities are efficient and agents will typically be young and attractive rather than friendly and engaging. Baggage security is excellent and Air Koryo does not have a reputation for missing luggage or bag theft. International tourists however may feel more comfortable taking out Travel Insurance. Air Koryo is very relaxed about passengers bringing domestic pets on board the plane as hand luggage as long as it has been OK’ed by check-in staff and they are caged appropriately.
Air Koryo’s Business Class is comparable to premium economy class on other airlines. It essentially is a better form of economy. Seats are larger, cabins more spacious and meals are both larger and better but in most other ways service is the same. At Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport there is a pleasant cafe style Business Lounge with nice works of art decorating it, and a buffet, however the airline has a lot to learn if it wishes to attract premium passengers.
Economy passengers actually get a product that is comparable to most legacy airlines. Air Koryo’s 20kg baggage allowance is standard, seat size is normal, meal service is of a high standard and the cabin interiors are pleasant. Air Koryo is efficient and punctual and first time travellers will definitely experience a flight they will enjoy telling friends about.
Air Koryo does not have a capitalist style frequent flyer programme and is against the very principle of it.
Air Koryo is administratively top heavy and promotion is based on political loyalty and employment track record, not dissimilar to many Western airlines where promotion is based on flattery and loyalty to the management team. Air Koryo does not tolerate the petty corruptions that occur on most airlines and bribery will more likely be punished than rewarded. Like so much about North Korea, little is truly known about the airline’s management, however they do genuinely seem to be behind the times and are very unskilled at dealing with opponents; whether authorities in the European Union or commercial rivals. Making a profit does not seem to a high priority for management.
Despite the European Union banning Air Koryo from its airspace in 2006, the airline’s safety record is quite good. In Air Koryo’s long history it has had one fatal accident and one non-fatal accident. Globally commercial aircraft have an economic lifespan of 25 years so most of Air Koryo’s fleet is now past its use-by date. The European Union banned the types of aircraft Air Koryo operate rather than the airline itself. There were no particular safety violations that the airline breached to justify its ban and it is tempting to see this as political. In addition Air Koryo’s Soviet-era aircraft are fuel inefficient and need to be replaced anyway, because they make no economic sense to continue flying. Cash starved North Korea have other priorities at the moment.
The negative Western images of Air Koryo are as untrue as North Korean images of domestic bliss. Air Koryo is an average full service airline in almost every way.
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