Flying on North Korea’s national airline, Air Koryo: “The zero star airline”

Our writer, Gunnar Garfors shares his experiences on board North Korea's Air Koryo, where he inadvertently discovers the world's smallest beef burger patty.

Flying on North Korea's national airline, Air Koryo: "The zero star airline"

Source: Gunnar Garfors

I fly a lot.

My favourite airlines are all based in Asia. It just so happens that my least favourite airline is also Asian.

North Korea’s national airline, Air Koryo offers you nothing that resembles quality on its flights to or from its hub in Pyongyang – but the experience is certainly worth writing home about.

And an experience it is, if you’re travelling on one of Air Koryo’s Soviet-era planes. Strange sounds and seat configurations are all part of the experience, as well as the revolutionary-like propaganda music played before and during take-off.

The stewardesses, who wear white gloves and uniforms that must have won fashion awards in the 60s make on board announcements in a  formal manner along the lines of: “The beverage service is about to commence, thanks to our Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.”

I was on the plane when Kim Jong-il was still alive and presume that the cabin crew now pay their respects to his son (North Korea’s new leader), Kim Jong-un.

Flying on North Korea's national airline, Air Koryo: "The zero star airline"

The “in-flight magazine.” Source: Gunnar Garfors

Whilst on board, I was given a complimentary copy of “The Pyongyang Times,” North Korea’s only English speaking newspaper. I should point out that in no other country would it be called a “newspaper.”

Take, for instance an extract from a football report after a World Cup qualifying match between North Korea and South Korea in Seoul. South Korea won, which is quite obvious given the reporting:

“The match turned into a mess of tricks and swindles. It is as clear as day that this was the product of the Lee Myung Bak [the President of South Korea] clan’s moves of confrontation with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the deliberate behaviour of the dishonest forces instigated by the clan. We sternly condemn the behavior of the Lee clan, which misbehaves itself in every way in disregard of the nation and the idea of sport, as the anti-reunification and anti-national moves of confrontation with the DPRK and strongly urge the south Korean authorities to bear full responsibility and immediately apologise for the serious incident.”

If you thought regular airline meals were bad…

Your stomach may not be too happy about boarding Soviet-era planes, or about eating what Air Koryo serves on board.

You will get a tray with calories on it, but whether what’s on the tray can be called ‘food’ is debatable.

Believe it or not, this is actually a burger.

This is supposed to be a hamburger.

Air Koryo on the EU blacklist of banned airlines

It’s also not very comforting to know that Air Koryo is largely banned from flying into Europe because it doesn’t meet international safety standards.

However the airline’s purchase of two new-generation Tupolev TU-204 planes has given the airline a little European opening.

These two aircraft can fly into European airspace and have been used for charter flights between Berlin and Zurich.

Flying on these new planes may not be as exciting as a ride on one of Air Koryo’s Soviet-era aircraft, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that you won’t find a more unique in-flight experience anywhere else in the world.

Finally.. something to thank the late Kim Jong-il for!


Read more about Gunnar’s trip to North Korea.

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