Air Koryo, North Korea’s national carrier, was named the world’s worst airline for the fourth year running last year by the website Skytrax, but is reportedly experiencing a “revolution”, with improvements in its aircraft, in-flight entertainment, uniforms and business-class offerings, according to recent passengers and travel agents, Bloomberg reports.
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The airline’s upgrades form part of the country’s effort to welcome two million tourists by 2020, and at least a million by next year – a drive sanctioned by the country’s leader Kim Jong-un.
The airline is currently the only one in the world which Skytrax gives a one-star rating (out of a possible seven). It is marked down for the age of its aircraft and its confusing website, as well as “cabin safety standards”.
But with improvements said to be in place, here a few reasons why it could be worth flying with Air Koryo.
1. New Airport Terminal
Last summer, North Korea opened a new terminal building at Pyongyang’s international airport. The new building is roughly the same size as the old one, but is much bigger than the small, temporary terminal building that has been in use for the past few years while construction was taking place.
Just a handful of international flights come and go from Pyongyang each week, which makes for shorter queues and fewer crowds.
North Korea‘s leader Kim Jong-un had shown a keen interest in the construction of the new airport and North Korean state media pictured him inspecting the project four times in the past last few years.
The airline’s in-flight meals appeared to be pretty substantial, according to photographs shared by Singapore-based Aram Pan, who joined a tour to the country in 2014. More recently, improvements are said to have been made on food offerings in its new business-class lounge.
But the ingredients of the “mysterious” hamburger offered on board remains questionable.
“The burger has been going on for so many years, everyone’s making fun of it,” Sam Chui, who’s flown with Air Koryo around 20 times and eaten at least 10 of these burgers, told Bloomberg.
3. Facilities and Service
The airline’s services and facilities do appear to have improved significantly since 2002, recalled Julian Ryall, who took his first flight into Pyongyang, the North Korean capital in 2002.
“On that occasion, it would have been generous to describe the explanation of the emergency procedures as perfunctory, the fizzy drink that was served was difficult to identify and the engine noise from the elderly Soviet aircraft was uncomfortably loud,” he told Telegraph Travel last year.
“The tour group were all over the runway, happily snapping away at the planes. And the North Korean government didn’t even mind one bit,” added Mr Pan. “It’s a huge leap forward in terms of relaxing the rules”.
4. In-flight Entertainment
Passengers are said to be entertained with a showing of music concerts by Moranbong, believed to be Kim Jong-un’s favourite female band, who performs songs about the ‘Supreme Leader’, broadcasted on communal television screens that drop down from the ceiling of the cabin. Though they are advised to bring noise-cancelling earphones as there is said to be no volume control option available.
In 2014, the entertainment was said to be limited to just a single television channel, according to photographs taken by Mr Pan.
There’s no denying the fascination with a bygone era captured by Air Koryo’s fleet that inspires travellers to give the airline a try.
The vast majority of the airline’s fleet of 16 passenger aircraft are of ageing Russian designs.
“It’s a very different experience, travelling back 20, 30 years,” Chui told Bloomberg.
In March 2006, the European Union banned Air Koryo from EU skies on the grounds of serious and repeated safety deficiencies. Four years later it returned to European airports, equipped with two new Russian-built Tupolev 204 aircraft.
Passengers are able to fly on Soviet-era aircraft, including Mil Mi-16 transport helicopter for an aerial view of the capital and its mountains.
In 2014, dozens of passengers were given access to its fleet including one of its Ilyushin Il-18, which was first flown in 1957 and is still used by just a handful of airlines.
The cockpit is a far cry from today’s airliners, possessing no digital screens, while the fans and seatbelts also appeared to be rather outdated, Mr Pan’s photographs revealed.