North Korea’s Flagship Airline, Air Koryo to Pyongyang
The world's only one-star carrier, Air Koryo, has launched an English-language website, but good luck purchasing a flight. Reuters

The only air carrier with a one-star rating on global airline ranking site Skytrax has launched a new website in English, but good luck getting a ticket there.

North Korea’s official carrier, Air Koryo, now offers flights online from Pyongyang to Beijing and Shenyang in China and to Vladivostok in Russia, but a quick look at the site reveals three glaring issues.

1: Though the website lists fares and schedules, any attempt to actually purchase a trip turns up zero results.

2: Even If it did turn up results, the carrier does not accept credit cards, instead requiring passengers to arrange an international wire transfer.

3: Who, one wonders, is Air Koryo marketing to in this isolated state where most citizens are denied access to the Internet and do not have the privilege of leaving the country?

Dr. Leonid Petrov, a regular visitor to North Korea and an expert on the country, told North Korea watchdog site NK News that the website was created “to impress the people who have never thought of traveling to Pyongyang.”

“Those who have been to North Korea know that booking a ticket with Air Koryo is the easiest part of such trip: Obtaining the DPRK visa is the real challenge. But even accredited diplomats and regular business travelers, who are welcome in Pyongyang and have open visas, will not find this new website particularly useful, because it is not accessible from South Korea,” he said. “It functions like a primitive database of flights but does not book anything, and nobody would feel safe to entrust his or her personal information to it.”

Fair enough, but let’s assume for a moment that you can book a flight on Air Koryo through its new Web portal. What you’ll find are a host of interesting perks that have disappeared from modern air travel.

Need to transport live animals like dogs, cats or birds in the passenger cabin? Fine, so long as they’re less than 5 kilograms (11 pounds). Missed your flight or just plain forgot to show up? No worries, you can get a full refund “without any additional charge.”

With services like these, Skytrax doesn’t give the 57-year-old Air Koryo bad marks across the board. In fact, the national carrier receives three stars out of five for “enthusiasm” and “staff grooming.” Yet, these fail to counterbalance one-star ratings for “comfort,” “consistency,” “check-in services” and “arrival assistance.”

Part of the problem is the age of its planes. Air Koryo flies an aging fleet of Russian-built Tupolev aircraft on its international flights and even older Soviet-era aircraft domestically. It has, however, made a push over the past year to rebuild its brand, purchasing two modern Tupolev TU-204 aircraft and renovating Pyongyang’s Sunan airport.

The largest part of its rebranding effort appears to be the new, nonfunctional website, which comes about two years after a Facebook page for Air Koryo made a splash in the global media. Though the page stirred up interest in the notorious North Korean airline, NK News discovered last year that it was run by enthusiastic Russian air crew and is by no means an official social marketing effort by the DPRK. After all, the Facebook page functions far too well.