North Korea, one of the poorest, most isolated and repressive nations on earth, perhaps surprisingly, boasts a functional national airline that has a decent safety record and which flies to more destinations than one might expect.
Originally founded in 1950 as a North Korean-Soviet joint venture, the state-controlled Air Koryo has a fleet of about 30, mostly older Russian-made aircraft, and flies to 14 airports in six countries, with Beijing (three flights per week) and Shenyang in northeastern China (twice weekly), the most frequent destinations.
The airline also travels to Moscow and Vladivostok in Russia, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and even, in a bizarre choice, Kuwait, their farthest destination. In addition, it flies to 11 domestic North Korean cities with smaller turboprop aircraft.
The European Union has largely banned Air Koryo from landing in any airports under its jurisdiction due to what the European Civil Aviation Authority calls “serious safety deficiencies” and other similar issues. In March 2010, the EU said it would let Air Koryo operate two newer, Russian-made Tupolev Tu-204 jets into the Union, although that has not yet led to any links between Pyongyang and Western European capitals.
Professor Sung-Yoon Lee, who teaches Korean affairs at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, said the EU is likely motivated more by politics than a genuine concern over Air Koryo's safety standards.
In fact, the North Korean airline has enjoyed a relatively good history of safety, at least compared to some other Asian and African carriers that have been banned by EU bureaucrats. (Yet, North Korea has diplomatic relations with all but two EU members: France and Estonia).
The last major crash that involved Air Koryo occurred in July 1983, when a plane smashed into the Fouta Djall Mountains in Guinea, in West Africa, killing all 23 people on board.
Still, flying on Air Koryo, and making the unlikely trip to North Korea, would present some unique challenges for most Western travelers who are accustomed to more "sophisticated" air carriers.
With 30 or so aircraft, Air Koryo is very small -- by comparison, South Korea’s principal carrier, Korean Air Lines, has a fleet of some 160 of the most modern and expensive aircraft such as the Airbus A-380 and Boeing 747-800 cargo-liner and flies them to 130 cities in 45 countries in the farthest corners of the world. Indeed, KAL is one of the few airlines that fly to all six inhabited continents.
Air Koryo's safety record may also be somewhat misleading – indeed, nothing is known about the performance of its domestic carriers. North Korea's tightly controlled media would likely black out news of any local air disasters.
“That’s something we know nothing about. They do not have to report to the FAA or [European] CAA,” said Capt. Al Langelaar, a partner with Aero Consulting Experts, and a San Francisco-based Boeing 747-400 captain for a major U.S. airline.
However, random assessments by English-speaking users of Air Koryo on SkyTrax, the airline review website, are generally mildly favorable and focus on the inherent oddities of flying on an airplane from an isolated Communist state.
Among these eccentricities is the fact that the aircraft are old Soviet-made vessels while flights often feature propaganda speeches and music spewed by the in-flight entertainment or the flight attendants themselves, which hail the 'Glorious Leader' (first Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea, then Kim Jong-Il, and now Kim Jong-un). The food also leaves much to be desired.
An Australian flier named "McAlpine" commented: “We had not one problem on the whole trip. While all but the [Russian-made Tupolev Tu-204 aircraft] were ancient Soviet aircraft they were in immaculate condition. Every flight left on time with most arriving ahead of schedule. The crew's attitudes varied from flight to flight with some being better than others.”
But then McAlpine added: “I must admit [the food] was revolting. [In-flight entertainment] was also extremely poor… all they showed us was a North Korean concert which was on a loop. While it didn't bother me too much on our 2-hour flight from Pyongyang to Beijing it would have driven me insane if I was flying to some of their other destinations such as Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok.”
Another Australian named "Taylor" noted: “Boarding was fine, staff on board helpful and friendly. Due to the air conditioning, the cabin was full of fog. There was a lot of condensation. No food for 1.5 hours flight to Pyongyang.”
Yet another Aussie named "Rosser" gave the airline a modest endorsement: “The plane was clean and well presented. Check-in service was impersonal but satisfactory. The food was good. Both flights left and arrived right on time. A shame the airline doesn't fly more routes.”
An American named "Wilson" also delivered a generally favorable review: “Clean, new aircraft, seating reasonably comfortable and adequate for 2-hour trip. Was served bland meal but no worse than many other economy class meals. Service was efficient but cold, drinks offered and free English language DPRK [propaganda] 'literature'. Entertaining pre-take off video with politics included, and in-flight video showed happy images of the DPRK.”
But another passenger named "Trudo" gave a more measured assessment: “Aircraft was very old-looking and used. I had to work hard at attaching my safety belt. The fabric on the seats was old and frayed. The crew was very perfunctory in their duties, but still polite and civil. The crew was not service oriented, nor did it seem inclined to be. Not a bad experience, but nothing to stand out in my mind.”
Looking forward, Professor Lee thinks that North Korea, under new leadership, will make the further development of its airlines a high priority.
“I think they are very interested in their image and their state airline represents the 'face' of the country,” he said. “They have already made some improvements in in-flight services, food, as well as their embryonic tourism infrastructure.”
Despite North Korea's generally negative image around the world, Lee notes they should not be patronized, nor under-estimated.
“North Korea is an industrialized country, so their national airline is not a joke,” he stated, “They also have nuclear weapons which makes them something to be taken seriously. So, it is not a surprise that they have functioning airline.”
Of course, North Korea has a long, hard road ahead of it before it becomes a place tourists and travelers want to flock to. Conversely, given the draconian restrictions imposed upon the populace, very few North Koreans are able to fly out of the country.
“Most North Korean passengers are government and military officials and other elites who can be trusted to go overseas,” Lee said. “There is no real middle class consumer culture yet.”
Indeed, North Korea is so repressive that its citizens need travel permits to move from one city to another.
Such restrictions are also imposed upon foreign visitors, who are observed and supervised during their entire stay in the hermit kingdom.
Langelaar noted that the majority of Air Koryo passengers are probably Chinese, not North Koreans.
“Many of the passengers on the Beijing-Pyongyang flights tend to be Chinese businessmen seeking to sell products to the North Koreans,” he said. “Many of the flights are half-empty.”
One might wonder why anyone would want to visit a country like North Korea.
“Foreign tourists, especially from China, are fascinated and curious by this strange country,” Lee stated. “They, and other visitors, are surprised to find that the North Koreans they meet are highly educated, sophisticated and multi-lingual.”
North Korea's young new leader, Kim Jong-un, has made moves to establish closer trade ties with China, which could lead to more air traffic on the 500-mile Beijing-Pyongyang route.
It will be interesting to see if China plays a role in expanding the Air Koryo airline or if Russia maintains its dominant presence.
“China hasn’t yet gotten into major commercial airline manufacturing, so the North Koreans have to depend on their old Russian allies,” Langelaar said.
“North Korean pilots all receive their training from Russians -- while the South Korean pilots are mostly trained by U.S. and EU pilots. KAL even has currently over 400 expat US and EU pilots on contract."
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.