Frequent Flyer’s Guide to North Korean Air: a Review of World’s Only One Star Airline

26 Jan

Frequent Flyer’s Guide to North Korean Air: a Review of World’s Only One Star Airline

By Nate Thayer

Air Koryo, North Korea’s official airline, is rated the world’s only one star air carrier. But it is improving. In August, Pyongyang’s promise of being global technological leaders achieved a key milestone, when the national airline announced it would offer online reservations with “convenient reservations day and night”.

The official airline of North Korea now allows international travelers to book one of their eight weekly international flights, which accommodate the global hubs between Pyongyang and Beijing, Pyongyang and Shenyang, China, or Pyongyang and Vladivostok.

Air Koryo says customers can purchase additional room for their “black box” or for their “fat”, according to the Air Koryo website, which is inexplicably down at the moment

There is a hitch though; the airline doesn’t accept credit cards, so one has to use PayPal.

Air Koryo website for revolutionary new online bookings for reservations. Unfortunately they don't accept credit cards

Air Koryo website for revolutionary new online bookings for reservations. Unfortunately they don’t accept credit cards

Air Koryo offers scheduled flights from Pyongyang to Beijing and Shenyang in China and Vladivostok in Russia.

There are a number of independent air travel rating services that rate the service. Skytrax, a company that ranks global air transport gives Air Koryo the only airline on earth a one-star rating that represents “very poor quality performance”.

AirKoryo-620x410 air-koryo-is-not-quality-approved-and-has-1-star-general-ratings-almost-across-the-board-from-skytrax.jpg air-koryos-webpage-is-part-of-the-governments-site-and-theres-not-much-you-can-do-on-it-you-have-to-call-or-email-a-hotmail-address skytrax not quality approved

Air Koryo’s website offers a one way business class fare from Pyongyang to Beijing, if you book online, of $374, which would seem prohibitive to most citizens of the isolated nation where per capita income is estimated at $1,800.

The website Terminal U, which offers “Air travel news & views” recently wrote a detailed pictorial story titled “Flying on North Korea’s national airline, Air Koryo: “The zero star airline” by “Our writer, Gunnar Garfors” who “ shares his experiences on board North Korea’s Air Koryo, where he inadvertently discovers the world’s smallest beef burger patty.”

The World's Smallest Hamburger

The World’s Smallest Hamburger

Their crack correspondent Gunner writes: “My favorite airlines are all based in Asia. It just so happens that my least favorite 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.”

He continues that “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” and offers a colorful portrait where the stewardesses “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.’”

Reviewers nearly unanimously say that the flight attendants are friendly and efficient, but perfunctory. They earned a 3 star rating for Grooming and Presentation

Gunner then offers his assessment of in flight service, saying he “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.”

koryo inflight reading

He then quoted from a story on the World Cup qualifying match between North Korea and South Korea in Seoul. “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 behavior 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 apologies for the serious incident.”

he attendants pass out a propaganda paper before getting off the ground. Guess who's on the front page

Regarding the meal service, Gunner writes “You will get a tray with calories on it, but whether what’s on the tray can be called ‘food’ is debatable.”


Gunner notes correctly that Air Koryo is largely banned from flying to Europe because it doesn’t meet international safety standards, but the Norwegian, whose bio says he “visits over 50 countries a year and is on a mission to visit all 198 countries in the world” and “his wildest journey so far was a trip to five countries on five continents in a single day – a world record” ends on a high note concluding “you won’t find a more unique in-flight experience anywhere else in the world.”

Flipdown TV screens with homages to Kim (Sr) (Jr) )3rd) for passenger entertainment

Flipdown TV screens with homages to Kim (Sr) (Jr) )3rd) for passenger entertainment

In August, 2011, the official state Korean Central News Agency announced that there would be a scheduled Shanghai-Pyongyang air service available on Tuesday and Friday every week, but it turned out the scheduled route was limited to “Chinese volunteers” who wanted to visit North Korea for the 60th anniversary of the Korean War.

Air Koryo operates round trip flights between Pyongyang and Beijing on Tuesday, Thursdays, and Saturdays.  It operates round trip flights between Pyongyang and Shenyang on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  The flights always originate in Pyongyang and return the same day.

Terminal 2 is nothing special and get's a lot of flights to obscure places, including 2 Air Koryo flights to FNJ (Air China flies to FNJ from Terminal 2 by the way)

Business Insider magazine reported last year in a story headlined “On North Korea’s 1-Star Airline, You’ll Be Served One Sad-Looking Hamburger” that Japanese news website RocketNews24 offered a pictorial food review of Air Koryo’s service on Japanese news website and its correspondent, who was travelling economy, was served a hamburger and a cup of juice which “looks totally gross. The worst part? The burger was served cold. RocketNews24 surmises that the microwave is reserved for first-class customers only.”

screenshot via YouTube RocketNews24

RocketNews24 wrote “On our Japanese site, we run a regular column where we review the in-flight meals of airlines around the world. While we’ve yet to bring any of these to our English site, our latest review was just too good to keep to our Japanese readers. Ladies and gentlemen, we bring you the in-flight meal of North Korea’s state-owned carrier, Air Koryo. The meal under review was served to our correspondent during an economy class flight from North Korea’s Sunan International Airport to Beijing Capital International Airport. The contents of the meal included a hamburger and a cup of juice – nothing more, nothing less. The hamburger was topped with 2 thin onion slices and mayonnaise and came in wrapping with Chinese writing on it, suggesting it was made in China. The juice was available in either apple or orange. Regarding the taste of the hamburger, our correspondent tells us that both the buns and hamburger patty were incredibly dry, though this may partly be due to the fact that the hamburger was served to him cold. Our guess is that the microwave is reserved for first-class passengers only.”


Business Insider Magazine wrote in 2011 in a story titled” “North Korea’s Air Koryo Is The Worst Airline In The World” that “there’s only one airline in the world that has been deemed horrible enough to earn a dismal 1-star rating from leading airline reviewer SkyTrax. It’s North Korea’s state-owned airline: Air Koryo.”

In the business magazines airline review it asked: “In an industry already suffering from widespread negative perception, what makes Air Koryo stand out as the very worst? Customer service, food, safety or a little bit of everything?”

They then posted photographs from recent passenger Australian biomedical engineer Mark Fahey on his flight from Beijing to Pyongyang.

It gets so bad that they have to wipe the cabin down so that droplets dont bother the passengers a process that Joseph Ferris caught on camera on his flight.

It gets so bad that they have to wipe the cabin down so that droplets dont bother the passengers a process that Joseph Ferris caught on camera on his flight.

For your refuses vomit bag

For your refuses vomit bag

The website, a service devoted to rating in flight food quality on every commercial air carrier on earth, devotes a whole section to passenger reviews of Air Koryo’s cuisine.

Route:         Beijing to Pyongyang, 2005-08-12

Flight duration:    1h 30m

Flight class:          economy

Ticket price:         n/a

Aircraft:      IL

Meal:          lunch – See the pic. No products are of any known brand or known style: it’s all ‘North Korean’ in style.

Drink:         Water approved by the Great Leader

Comments:           Large portions. The sausages did have hard parts in it (bone?).

Rating (1-10):       5 stars


In another review the meals slightly improved it seems.

Route: Beijing to Pyongyang, 2005-10-01
Flight duration: 1h 30m
Flight class: economy
Ticket price: USD 332.00 (roundtrip)
Aircraft: TU-154
Meal: Lunch – Rice with chicken, potatoes and some orange sauce without much flavor. Also salad, fruit, hardboiled egg, cake, processed cold meat, and bread.
Drink: North Korean orange-like fizzy drink
Comments: This was much more fulfilling than the return flight’s offering. Quality-wise, it’s not bad relatively speaking — typical economy class airline stuff.
Rating (1-10): 7 starskoryo1

In a review a few years later the Pyongyang authorities probably were pleased in the conclusion that the food “was better than you get on any American airliner.”

Route:         Pyongyang to Beijing, 2005-10-04

Date added:          2008-05-21

Flight duration:    1h 30m

Flight class:          economy

Ticket price:         USD 332.00 (roundtrip)

Aircraft:      IL-62

Meal:          Breakfast – Some hamburger with a mystery chicken-type meat in the middle, and some overcooked lettuce, as if it had been frozen and microwaved.

Drink:         North Korean draft beer

Comments:           Doesn’t fill you up much. Still better than what you would get on any US airline, though.

Rating (1-10): 5 stars

Although a review the next year fared decidedly worse:

Route:         Beijing to Pyongyang, 2009-10-01

Date added:          2010-03-12

Flight duration:    2h 0m

Flight class:          economy

Ticket price:

Aircraft:      TU-154

Meal:          Hot lunch – mystery chicken, canned fruit, nothing special.

Drink:         I had decent bottled water

Comments:           Since this flight originated in Beijing, the food was at least identifiable. On the return flight which originated in Pyongyang, it was quite different and even more of a mystery… it was a roll with some kind of mystery pate on it


Air Koryo's Ilyushin Il-62

B y 2010, it appeared airline frequent flyers were getting used to bland fare:

Route:         Pyongyang to Beijing, 2009-09-10

Date added:          2010-05-08

Flight duration:    2h 0m

Flight class:          business

Ticket price:

Aircraft:      TU154

Meal:          Airkoryo.jpg Typical Korean (North) meal…

Drink:         “Orange Drink with Pulp” (their words)

Comments:           Airkoryo3.jpg – Blanched peanuts and “Orange Drink with Pulp”

On the aviation forum, which bills itself as the wings of the web”, Gialloboy from Ireland posted on September 3, 2012 on his trip from Beijing to Pyongyang. “Woke up Tuesday morning with a rather bad hangover but managed to drag myself in the shower and ultimately into a cab to Beijing airport. Traffic was not too bad for a change and I arrived in Terminal 2 within 30 minutes. Did some last minute email (no Internet in the DPRK!) and drank some Isotonic drinks which made me feel a lot better.” The Irish lad offered copious detail for the frequent Pyongyang flyers that were to follow him. “Terminal 2 is nothing special and get’s a lot of flights to obscure places, including 2 Air Koryo flights to FNJ (Air China flies to FNJ from Terminal 2 by the way)”


“At 11 am I made my way past security and on towards Air Koryo’s check in. They actually have a separate J checkin and I had my boarding card and lounge pass within 60 seconds. Funny thing is that Korean Air operates check in desks for their flight to Seoul in the very next row of desks! Check in desk (used for J PAX). Went past immigration and visited the lounge. Air Koryo uses the Air China lounge which is again used by Korean Air! ”

“Boarded quickly and settled into my comfy J seat. There are three rows in a 2-2 configuration; I was in row 2 and next to a quite friendly Danish businessman. We had some good conversation about his frequent trips to Pyongyang.


Unfortunately photos are not allowed inside Air Koryo planes so all shots are “sneaked”, the Danish businessman acted as my “wingman” and kept an eye on the FAs. There had been cases of travelers made to delete all of their pictures so I was extra careful. Air Koryo J class snaps, rather stylish and nice. I have no idea why they score only 1 star on Skytrax, I thought they were rather adequate for a 2 hour flight and probably offered more comfort than some US airlines.”


“Despite the flight being only 120 minutes we got a full meal, consisting of cold cuts and curry. Not bad at all! drinks were served also with a choice of water, soft drink and beer. Meal was followed by coffee. Note there was no milk, as everywhere in North Korea. Only powdered cream. FA consisted of a patriotic North Korean film: Thanks were paid to the Great Leader when we entered DPRK airspace and shortly after we touched down in FNJ. Surely this airport has one of the longest taxies anywhere in the world.

The TU204 at home base in FNJ”

Then the Irishman landed in Pyongyang.


“Arrivals is pretty new, the old Soviet style terminal has been bulldozed to the ground. We were in within 30 minutes and they had our mobile phonesJ.”

Busy day in FNJ!

Busy day in FNJ!

Into town and first stop Arch of Triumph: People were training for the upcoming torch parade on Kim Il Sung square


The Irishman had a few comments on the discussion board: “Quoting theobcman (Reply 5):

“Also when you say they took your mobile phones at the airport, then what happens? Do they keep them until your return flight?”

He replied “You get the phone back when you are about to leave the country.”

Another intrepid traveler inquired “Is milk is not available in DPRK at all?”


Our Celtic correspondent helpfully explained “Not really, if anything else most Asians are lactose intolerant so there is not much of a demand for milk to begin with. Second dairy is very resource intensive to make, something the DPRK does not have a lot of.”

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