Meet Air Koryo, the Most Mysterious Airline in the World

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Formally known as Chosonminhang and established in 1955, Air Koryo is the only commercial airline of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Chosonminhang was renamed as Air Koryo on March 28, 1992 and has experienced several episodes of simmering successes and failures.

Air Koryo has its headquarters in Sunan-guyok and bases its operations at the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport.

Numerous international routes opened up for Air Koryo between 1955 and 2008, among these are Pyongyang-Chita, Pyongyang-Beijing, Pyongyang-Khabarovsk, Pyongyang-Moscow, Pyongyang-Moscow-Berlin, Pyongyang-Moscow-Sofia, Pyongyang-Bangkok, Pyongyang-Macau, Pyongyang-Vladivostok, Pyongyang-Shenyang, Pyongyang-Seoul, Pyongyang-Kualarumpur, Pyongyang-Singapore and Pyongyang-Kuwait.

Air Koryo AN-24

Three AN-24s were mostly used on domestic services (Photo: Tis Meyer)

Being a North Korean owned airline carried alongside its own downsides and apparently has brought untold vilifying notes to Air Koryo.

North Korea is an East Asia country located to the north of the Korean Peninsula with Pyongyang as its capital and largest city. The country sits between China and the Asian part of Russia to the north and northwestern region but it is bounded by South Korea to the south. North Korea has about 120,540 square kilometres.

The local climate is characterized by long winters with very cold and clear weather. North Korean climatic conditions do not pose a serious threat to aviation, although Pyongyang has humid continental climate with severe, dry winter, hot summer and strong seasonality.

The once flourishing airline has been humorously dubbed the world’s worst airline. This is basically due to the political pressures and the sanctioning of the parent country by the United Nations.

Although it still flourished in domestic travels, Air Koryo has had a tough time in international travels with its international routes slashed down to basically its two northern neighbors, China and Russia. As a matter of fact, just recently China restricted the airline after an emergency landing.

According to its website, Air Koryo currently operates services from Pyongyang to Beijing, Shenyang, Shanghai, Vladivostok and Orang.

Commencement of Jet Operations and Fleet Details

Jet Operations in Air Koryo began in 1975. This started with the Tupolev Tu-154 providing its services from Pyongyang to Prague, East Berlin and Mosow.

Air Koryo Tu-154

The first Tupolev Tu-154 was delivered in 1975 for services to Prague, East Berlin and Moscow (Photo: Tis Meyer)

Domestic services also commenced but these were operated with Tu-134s and An-24s.

At the onset, Tu-154 had insufficient range and had to stop along the route to refuel, however, efficiency was boosted to enable Tu-154 to have a non-stop service to Moscow for the first time in 1982. The airline also served Sofia and Belgrade.

Expansion became needful which resulted to the purchase of Tu-204-300 aircraft and more in order to replace the ageing infrastructure. Air Koryo’s routes covered a greater portion of Europe and in 2011 it began providing services to Kuwait and Kuala Lumpur.

Air Koryo AN-148

Air Koryo current fleet includes two Antonov An-148 (Photo: Vasily Doenin)

Air Koryo’s current fleet consists of only four aircraft, with an average age of 4.4 years. The fleet includes two Antonov An-148-100B (4 and 1.7 years old) and two Tupolev Tu-204 (one Tu-204-300 and one TU-204-100B).

Air Koryo An-148

The An-148s are configured in two classes with 8 seats in Business Class and 62 in Economy (Photo: Vasily Doenin)

Ranking and Services

Air Koryo has been ranked as the world’s worst airline for four consecutive times. As a matter of fact, Skytrax, a UK-based airline and airport consultancy, ranked Air Koryo as the 681th airline in the world with respect to the quality of its services and products. It is the only airline that has received a one-star rating. The services conspicuously prove that it is indeed the worst in the world.

Besides, if you must fly with the airline, then you must abide by its strict rules including the no-photography rule and if you dare to take a picture, a flight attendant might help you to delete it. Travelers are said to be sternly warned simply because they crumpled up a newspaper bearing the image of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader.

However, Bloomberg recently wrote an article following an interview with passengers and travel agents that the popularly known world’s worst airline is currently undergoing a revolution. The marked revolutions include the entertainment options, smart new uniforms for the cabin attendants, the planes, improvement in food served and so forth.

U.N. Sanctions

There has been growing unrest over North Korea nuclear tests. The Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test and rocket launch which leveraged the proscribed ballistic missile technology has attracted stern sanction by the U.N. Security Council. Various countries have endorsed the U.N. sanction on North Korea and of course this endorsement meant a termination in some of Air Koryo’s air routes.

Various flights have been terminated following the effect of this sanction such as the once-a-week flights on a route that connects Pyongyang to Bangkok through Shenyang in the Northeastern part of China because the Thai government subscribed to the U.N. sanction.

Beyond the commonly held poor services of Air Koryo, the U.N. sanction has had its toll on the airline with the number of countries which the airline flies dwindling from five to two and its flights limited to only China and Russia.

Growing Concerns

The U.S had deployed several bureaucratic means to pressurize North Korea prior to U.N ruling, however China would not oblige. This brought about a loggerhead between the two giants. The U.S knew too well that even though its allies has consented to curtail Air Koryo’s activities and restricted its abilities, China and Russia in particular may not grant America’s request on the issue. However, the U.S vows to continue pushing countries to ban the airline from their airport.

As of September, 2016 Kuwait still allowed Air Koryo to use their airports, however, just recently the airline is no longer permitted to operate the Pyongyang-Kuwait route and Kuwait cited the U.N sanction as the reason for their action.

Air Koryo Tu-204

Air Koryo is no longer allowed to operate the Pyongyang-Kuwait route (Photo: Eddy Cuperus)

There appears to be a smooth relationship between North Korea and Russia as well as China. However, China has refused to increase its flights to North Korea. According to the Chinese civil aviation authorities, the refusal to allow additional flights is not a ban; however the action reason for the action is not disclosed. Moreover, China had earlier limited the operations of Air Koryo after a Beijing bound flight made an emergency landing in July, 2016.

Due to safety and maintenance concerns, Air Koryo was added to the list of air carriers banned in the European Union in March 2006.

The European Commission found evidence of serious safety deficiencies on the part of Air Koryo during ramp inspections in France and Germany. Air Koryo persistently failed to address these issues during other subsequent ramp inspections performed by the EU under the SAFA programme, pointing to blatant systemic safety deficiencies at Air Koryo operations.

The airline failed to reply to an inquiry by the French Civil Aviation Authority regarding its safety operations, pointing to a lack of transparency or communication on the part of Air Koryo. The plan by Air Koryo for corrective action, presented in response to France’s request, was found to be inadequate and insufficient.

The European Commission also held that North Korean authorities did not adequately oversee the flag carrier, which it was obliged to do under the Chicago Convention.

What does the future hold?

Air Koryo’s continual decline is obviously predictable. The North Korea owned airline is highly disadvantaged and it would take a determined effort to mitigate the brouhaha. It is obviously not a question of becoming a five-star airline but improving its services.

The U.N ban is one of the most austere challenges and drawback facing Air Koryo and this is evidently difficult to overcome because it is political. It would require North Korea to submit to the United Nations which would include submitting its nuclear tests and experiments and also playing by the rules. This is not easy to come by and North Korea is not likely to oblige being still backed by Russia. Thus, mitigating the effect of the sanction might be a whole lot difficult for Air Koryo.

However, Air Koryo still faces teeming issues because of its poor infrastructure, products and services. The recent restrictions in China resulted due to the poor and ageing infrastructure.

Air Koryo Ilyushin Il-62

Air Koryo operated four Ilyushin Il-62s, including two in VIP configuration (Photo: Tis Meyer)

Obviously, improvement in services is critical to the success of Air Koryo and the good news is that North Korean supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, has seen the need to improve the country’s aviation sector in order to boost tourism. In general, the future of Air Koryo is not very bright especially because of the U.N ban and the U.S is relentless in ensuring that the North Korean nuclear power is subdued and also neighboring countries are warned not to supply jet fuel to the country to hinder its nuclear project. Nevertheless, advancement in the nation’s aviation sector is critical and this can only be achieved by improving its facilities.

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