Flight Review: Air Koryo in Economy – Beijing to Pyongyang
Though he's typically loyal to Singapore Airlines, Ho Chi Minh City-based TPG Contributor Daan van Rossum decided to stretch his wings and jet off to Pyongyang, North Korea on the world's only one-star airline, Air Koryo. Here's his review of this singular experience. (All photos by the author.)
Update: This review previously stated that the author traveled in an Antonov An-148. We've corrected those references to reflect the actual aircraft type, the much more modern Tupolev Tu-204.
Air Koryo — the state-owned flag carrier of North Korea — only operates a handful of international scheduled routes outside the country, including service to Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK), the origin airport for my own trip. For four years running, the airline has earned SkyTrax's vote for the worst airline in the world — and not one to shy away from a challenge, I was curious to see why.
Even though it's theoretically possible to book flights online on Air Koryo's website, it doesn't get you very far, as North Korea has very strict visa requirements. If you begin a search for this itinerary on Air Koryo's site, you won't be shown any fare prices — as you'll see in this screenshot:
Click that orange "Select" button above and you'll be taken to this page:
Click "Continue," and you'll arrive at the home page for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. (No ticket booked and you're already traveling!)
There's actually no unrestricted travel in North Korea — the only way for foreigners to see it is via an organized tour that shows you the country's "highlights." My travel companion and I therefore ended up booking a package from Beijing to Pyongyang — including flights on Air Koryo — through the Explore North Korea travel agency, which took care of all logistics on our behalf.
Our four-day trip, including the flight from PEK to Pyongyang (FNJ), hotel and tour came in at $1,660 per person. We weren't given any breakdown of that cost and therefore are unaware of how much our flights actually cost. To book our trip, a deposit of $500 per person was required, which we could either pay via bank transfer to an account in Dandong, China, or via Paypal with the following caveat: "Please do not word North Korea it might not come to our bank account we notice this from experience before."
I opted for the latter so that I'd rack up some points with my Citibank Singapore PremierMiles Visa card, which awards one Citi Mile per dollar spent. Citi Miles can be transferred to a host of airline reward programs, including SQ's Krisflyer, at a 1:1 ratio.
Upon arrival at PEK for our short-haul flight, we got very excited to see that our flight was actually listed on the departure screens, which felt oddly surprising given the secrecy of North Korea.
Before we could check-in, however, we needed to find our Explore North Korea point of contact so that we could each get the visas required to obtain our boarding passes. Once we found him, he not only handed us our visas, but also accompanied us to the check-in counter just in case there were any issues. The check-in counter was emblazoned with the Air Koryo logo, which (even in the not-so-modern Terminal 2 at PEK) looked remarkably outdated.
Despite the fact that there was minimal communication between us and the ground staff, the check-in itself went relatively smoothly. That is, until we realized we had left one small camera battery in our checked bag, which caused the entire baggage system to come to a halt. We were directed to join the personnel behind the counter and open our bag right then and there on the transportation belt. After a bit of searching, we found the culprit, removed it, put our bag back into the machine — which soon came back to life — and it was shipped off to one of the most mysterious places on Earth.
Our boarding passes were printed and our guide walked us over to customs where he told us which papers to show the customs agents here and in Pyongyang.
After clearing immigration, we walked over to Air Koryo's business-class lounge to peek inside, which was all we needed to assure us that our economy-ticket exclusion wasn't much of a punishment — a nearby Starbucks looked nicer and kept us perfectly satisfied.
Then for the main attraction: the flight. Our airplane was already waiting for us, and unlike some other travelers reported, it was neither one of their infamous propeller planes or the fear-inducing Tupolev Tu-154. Instead, we flew in the relatively modern-looking Tupolev Tu-204 you see in the photo above.
The boarding procedure was like any other airline, but that's certainly where the comparison stopped. Instead of the usual selection of newspapers up for grabs ahead of a flight, we were only provided with North Korea's The Pyongyang Times. Its contents proved very entertaining, but presumably not for the reason the editors had intended – let's just say it was great to read a paper with only good news, for once!
The Cabin and Seat
The Tupolev Tu-204 had a comfortable temperature and looked, felt and smelled like it was properly cared for — but then again, that's not too hard to achieve with only two flights per day.
The airplane had a few rows of business-class seats up front, followed by an economy cabin arranged in a 3-3 configuration.
A little shabby around the edges, the stiff coach seats were as comfortable as you might expect, but actually as spacious as typical domestic coach seats in the US. The red-felted fabric was trimmed in red and gray leather, and each seat sported a simple folding tray table. The seat pocket offered no additional reading materials aside from The Pyongyang Times, but did feature the safety card; nothing you wouldn't expect on any other airline, but comforting on one that has been deemed inadequate to fly in European airspace.
In short, all the finishings on the airplane were between basic and just plain outdated — the overhead baggage compartments in particular. (We would discover the implications of this last detail soon enough.)
After a run-of-the-mill safety demonstration, we took off. The interior of the plane made more noise than I've ever heard a plane make before, but we weren't distracted by that for too long — because as soon as we hit cruising altitude, our in-flight entertainment started.
Forget about individual in-flight entertainment systems, an overhead monitor and unavoidable speakers throughout the plane are all that you need on Air Koryo. After two hours' worth of patriotic songs performed by an energetic all-female choir dressed in traditional Korean People's Army Air Force uniforms and standing against a backdrop of impressive-looking fighter jets, our flight was seemingly endless over before we knew it.
Food and Beverage
The in-flight service, on the other hand, was surprisingly pleasant and efficient for a one-star airline. Every one of the flight attendants were meticulously dressed and although shy, also very friendly. None spoke much English, but they were able to communicate enough to take a drink order. Our beverage choices included coffee, tea, water, beer and a conspicuously neon-colored soda I'd never seen before. I opted for a beer, as it seemed the safest choice.
The food didn't require any dialogue either, as there was only one option: a "hamburger" on a white bun, wrapped in cellophane. Upon closer inspection of this repast, we were inspired to skip it. I would have accompanied this assertion with a supporting photo, but unfortunately, having been briefed by our travel agency that any gesture, remark or action that's "out of the ordinary" could either get us or our guides in sincere trouble, we were nervous on this initial flight about getting caught taking a lot of pictures. We felt more brave on the return flight, but to our disappointment, we weren't served a "meal" that we could photograph.
Arrival and Pyongyang International Airport (FNJ)
Flying over North Korea provided us with some absolutely beautiful views, as the country's landscape is studded with mountains and laid with a stunning patchwork of farmland. However, that ended abruptly before we had our first glimpse of Pyongyang and just prior to our rough landing, as a nearby overhead bin sprang open and one of the bags inside fell to the floor with a loud thump.
Fortunately, falling luggage wasn't enough to distract us from our excitement about exploring a new country – starting with the Pyongyang International Airport (FNJ). Having opened only three months ago, this is one of the nicest airports I've seen in the region.
While previous travelers had reported on buses shuttling people between the airplane and the terminal, we were treated to brand new sky bridges that connected to a terminal that looked as if it hadn't been used before. We almost wondered if we had landed in the wrong country!
In every way, this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip — and I do mean once. Air Koryo offers no points, miles, free upgrades, retrofitted aircraft, "Book the Cook" or other glamorous services, but it does give you the opportunity to fly on a comfortably shabby airplane and travel to a country that doesn't even allow you to bring your own in-flight magazine aboard. Traveling in North Korea would prove to be even more memorable, but the flight certainly primed us for the journey.
In fact, it was such an unusual experience that I soon started looking forward to the trip back. The newspaper, the loud squeaks of the plane and the throw-back entertainment — all of it made me feel nostalgic for a flight I'll likely never take again.