In 2015 I went to North Korea with my friend Mitch. It was an incredible (and rare) experience to tour around one of the world’s most secretive states. We entered our 5-day trip by train but departed by flying out from Pyongyang Airport back to Beijing. On our flight out we were lucky to experience Air Koyro, a state-run airline that many in the west have cited as the world’s worst airline due to a lack of international safety recognition (and the stigma that surrounds North Korea).
Curious as always, I was excited to board the plane and try it for myself…
Leaving Pyongyang was a breeze. They mumbled through our paper passports and let us through the gate very quickly. There was no computer scan, biosecurity or identification. The airport was almost empty of passengers outside our small travel group.
In the old airport, there’s not much to do but sit and wait. Images of the new airport (now open) featured coffee, food and shops to browse and relax. I’m looking forward to flying the new terminal on my return! The old terminal is essentially a glorified shed.
We walked out onto the tarmac to the plane. We could see the new airport finishing the last stage of construction, with aircraft lined up outside. Most of the planes were ground tied with sleepers over the engines, which led me wondering how often they were actually flown.
Our aircraft was a Tupolev 204, a Russian-built aircraft used by only a handful of airlines today. The aircraft was quite old and noisy. As you entered, it felt as if you had stepped back 20 years into the Soviet Union. A pretty surreal experience, in contrast to soon after flying home aboard Cathay Pacific.
As we took off there was a loud explosion sound that made everyone tense. Turns out that’s just the landing gear! ‘Very normal and safe’ as the staff described. While taking off the crew played us some loud Korean propaganda music for our enjoyment.
The seating and service
The seats were surprisingly quite plush and comfy, upholstered in classic soviet style leather and some sort of red material cover to the headrests. The seating is a 3-3 layout with a galley at the front and back. There’s a good amount of legroom and headspace above the seat. The toilets are oddly located in the middle of the aircraft separating business class from economy.
The crew members were quite friendly at times and spoke basic English. I was given a complimentary copy of The Pyongyang Times paper to read which was printed in English. I bought a few of these papers while in the country to bring home as souvenirs.
There are 8 business class seats up the front which I snapped a quick picture of before being told I am not allowed to photograph on the plane. The seats looks quite average, but I am looking forward to reviewing them on my next trip to the Hermit Kingdom.
The crew first served us with a moist towelette, beverage of choice. We had the option of North Korea beer, coffee or water. The main meal in economy is the ‘famous’ North Korean burger. The burger was pretty sub-par to say the least. I don’t really to this day understand what was actually in the burger, and I think I’l keep it that way! I guess that’s why it’s noted as ‘the mystery meat’ by other travellers.
The rest of the flight was pretty stock-standard. We made some weird twists and turns through the air before landing. This might of been to avoid certain no-fly zones, or because the aircraft is so dated there was no modern computer system to seamlessly adjust the flight path.
The entire experience on a whole was quite fascinating to me, as an aviation enthusiast. I would say that the novelty and rarity of flying Air Koryo made the journey so rewarding. Comparing it to other airlines isn’t really fair, given the state of the country and the lack of modern influence, innovation – or even competition! For the resources they have – they’ve done well.
But would I fly them long-haul? No way! I’ll just stick to the Beijing-Pyongyang route thanks…