My Review Of The World’s Only One-Star Airline: North Korea’s Air Koryo Review
Holding the dubious honor of being the world’s only 1-star airline, today we’ll cover my Air Koryo review after flying round-trip between Beijing, China and Pyongyang, North Korea. Air Koryo is the state-owned airline of North Korea and fascinates many in the travel / aviation world. I flew their thrice-weekly service between Beijing and Pyongyang and will discuss the hard product (things you can touch) and soft product (things you can’t touch, such as service).
Understanding Air Koryo
A lot of what you hear about Air Koryo is conjecture. I’ve actually flown it and want to provide a real Air Koryo review just like any other airline review. The purpose is not to wade into the political discussion but simply to talk about an airline many are curious about and haven’t seen in person, much less flown.
Air Koryo is the government-owned official airline of North Korea. It’s had on-again / off-again permission to fly to other countries. It’s more “off” than on. They presently have permission only to fly to 2 countries: China (Beijing & Shenyang airports) and Russia (Vladivostok airport). They fly from their home base, Pyongyang International Airport (FNJ airport), which is the only international airport in North Korea currently operating.
This is due to both a history of failing to address problems during EU inspections (when the airline used to be allowed to fly there) and lack of transparent oversight. Due to not opening their books for regulators & inspectors, they had the dubious honor of being the world’s only 1-star airline on Skytrax for quite a while. At present, they’re listed as “not rated”, so this is technically no longer true, since Skytrax hasn’t been able to review them recently.
What Earns a 1-Star Rating on Skytrax?
Here is the Skytrax description of an airline with a 1-star review:
This represents a poor quality of Product delivered across the assessment sectors, combining with low and/or inconsistent standards of front-line Staff Service for the Onboard and home-base Airport.
Despite this, customers who have actually flown and provided reviews on Skytrax don’t rate it that poorly. Looking at the average ratings tells a very different story. Reviews are always subjective, obviously, so it depends on what you expect prior to the flight. On the flipside is this Bloomberg Travel review calling it the worst airline in the world. I flew Air Koryo 4 months after their flight, and I disagree with their review.
The Booking Process
Booking a flight on Air Koryo isn’t as simple as with other airlines. The official website is here. You can look up some flights and schedules, but that’s as far as you’ll get. Despite there being an “online booking guide” telling you the normal steps of booking a ticket online, it won’t work. You can’t pay online, due to economic restrictions, so waiting to sort through the agonizingly-slow website is pointless. The part where you’d choose flights is the last working section of the site. If you COULD book, a round-trip between Beijing and Pyongyang would cost you around $350 for economy.
The real way to book flights is to either contact one of their sales offices or arrange a tour. The first requires the 2nd, so that’s the real answer. Arrange a tour to North Korea, and they’ll liaise with their contacts in North Korea to get your flights and visa booked together. This is the only time I’ve ever had someone book flights for me without my involvement at all. I alluded to this previously, saying the country isn’t actually that difficult to visit.
Check-In and Boarding at Beijing PEK Airport
I will admit to being surprised that the flight was listed on the departures screen. Hearing so many times about the secretive nature of North Korea, I half-expected that the flight would be almost a secret.
The check-in process was smooth and efficient. Admittedly, there wasn’t much of a line. I laughed a bit to myself at their having a business class check-in. It seems a bit ironic on a state-owned product from a socialist nation. I wasn’t sure if this picture was allowed, so the quality isn’t very good.
Check-in followed the same procedures you’d expect. I was asked if I packed the bag myself, shown the sign about prohibited items, and then got my ticket after checking my backpack.
Given the infrequency and low number of flights they operate, Air Koryo uses paper stock from Air China for boarding passes.
Seats were assigned randomly. I received 7D, which is an aisle seat. I always prefer window seats but felt like I shouldn’t ask for a different seat.
Boarding was standard and efficient. Air Koryo even has your standard pilots + flight attendants promotional signage near the gate.
Standard signage at the gate told us the departure time and flight number. There were no codeshares. Boarding started about 35 minutes before departure, first with business class and then economy. There were 3-4 business class passengers and less than 20 for economy, so it went quickly.
Air Koryo Review – Hard Product
The “hard product” is things you can touch, such as the plane, seats, bathrooms, amenity kit, etc. Let’s look at these items.
The plane is a late-80s Tu-204-100. The Tu-204 series is the only aircraft type that Air Koryo has permission to fly into international airspace. The livery is clean and sleek.
Inside the airplane, the typical items like plane information and emergency procedures card were in the seat backs. Absent were an in-flight magazine and duty free magazines. (They did pass through with a duty free cart later, though.)
The plane is fitted with 16 business class seats in 4 rows of 2-2 and 150 economy class seats in 3-3 configuration. Economy seats are red and gray with emblazoned logos on the headrest cover.
To me, this is a perfectly average economy seat. It is 100% comparable to other airlines I’ve flown in the U.S. For a flight just under 2 hours, it’s a perfectly acceptable seat with standard recline and padding. If you didn’t know, you’d consider it a standard seat on a standard airline — better than discount airlines but not as good as long-haul flights.
This is where the differences start. There is no entertainment system at your seat. True to the fact the planes are from the late 80s, there are fold-down monitors from the ceiling and a large monitor at the front of the cabin.
What’s on? You’ll see patriotic songs from Moranbong, the female band that is the favorite of President Kim Jong-Un. They sing about him, about the country, about the history, etc. The music videos show footage of all of those set to music. The entertainment is the same on all screens and doesn’t have options. If you want to listen to it, flight attendants have free headphones to borrow.
Summary of Hard Product
Overall, I don’t think the hard product is that bad. I think the Air Koryo review from passengers who’ve flown on the airline shows that they got a 1-star rating not necessarily from the product but from lack of proper oversight and investigations. Not letting people properly assess the airline’s performance earned a 1-star rating as punishment. That’s how I see it. The product isn’t really deserving of 1 star.
Air Koryo Review – Soft Product
The “soft product” is things you can’t touch, such as the service and atmosphere. I’ll include the meal as part of service, even though you can obviously touch it.
There’s a great mystery here. The famous burger on Air Koryo — what is it? There’s speculation and rumor, but there’s no official answer. The meal is this simple sandwich and a blueberry soda.
I’d told the tour agency in advance that I was vegan. I figured this could be a problem in North Korea (it wasn’t difficult at all, FYI). On the flight, my sandwich was a slice of tomato on a bun. That’s it.
The service was 2 extremes. On the one hand, the flight attendants were good flight attendants. We got the expected briefings on safety, the pilot announced information before take-off, etc. All of that was perfectly normal and good.
Where the service becomes less agreeable is in the cultural nuances you have to navigate. During boarding, where you’d have newspapers to choose from on many flights, the only option was the Korean or English version of The Pyongyang Times. Sounds simple enough, but this is where navigating the culture becomes tough. I declined the newspaper for fear of violating strict rules about how you treat pictures of the leaders (tearing or disrespecting a picture of the president is a crime, and obviously their pictures are found throughout the newspaper).
The flight attendants spoke perfect English. The safety demonstration was bilingual Korean & English. Without knowing this is supposedly the “worst airline” in the world, you’d think it was a standard flight preparing for a medium-haul distance across Europe or coast-to-coast in the U.S. I’d rate the service as much better than anything else I’ve received on a flight less than 2 hours.
Summary of Soft Product
Overall, the soft product is quite good. When you consider the time/distance flown, it’s surprising that you get a meal (including multiple courses up in business class). The flight attendants are helpful and respectful. Their English is impeccable.
Overall Air Koryo Review
Overall, I don’t think Air Koryo is the worst airline in the world. In this Air Koryo review, we see that the seats are comfortable and maintained, even if dated. The flight attendants are respectful and helpful, which is more than I can say for numerous airlines I’ve been on. Seeing a meal service on such a short flight surprised me. I’ve only seen that on short flights in India, never anywhere else.
The negatives come with navigating the cultural nuances at play during the flight, such as behavioral expectations. The other negatives are in convenience, because you have to go to a very limited number of cities and put in extra work to fly this airline. That’s quite inconvenient. The other negative is the price. Yes, you get a lot on this short flight, but I also paid much more for this short flight than I would ever pay for a flight of similar time/distance. On a flight this short, for me personally, I’d rather pay less and receive less.
I’ve flown some…interesting…airlines. Air Cubana from Cancun to Havana, Cuba felt like the flight attendants disappeared and left everyone to fend for themselves after take-off. Yeti Airlines from Bharatpur to Kathmandu in Nepal was shaky from wind gusts going over the Himalayas, and we wondered if it was safe. RyanAir is always a roll of the dice on how passengers and crew will behave. American Airlines gate agents and flight attendants can be quite combative sometimes.
In my perspective, this Air Koryo review shows that it’s really not the worst airline in the world. It has some quirks, that’s for sure. Their lack of transparency with inspectors and failures to address EU demands forced them to get a bad rating, but I don’t think the rating from Skytrax reflects on the product at all. From my Air Koryo review and the reviews of others, there are other airlines I’d rank far, far worse than this one.
If you’ve flown Air Koryo, what was your experience like?
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When was this trip?
Late May 2016
Thanks for the review. I enjoyed it. It’s always good to read about people’s experiences with out-of-the-norm stuff.
My wife and I have taken that flight and the only thing that stood out was the FAs were a bit regimented on the way out back to Beijing. The woman in front of us was part of our group of 6, and she was dozing. This was deemed as unacceptable behavior, and she was publicly and loudly reprimanded. Probably didn’t help that we were all laughing hysterically, but we were on our way out.
Strange. One of our group slept the whole flight.
However, they spaced us out throughout the plane in a really weird way. I was in 7. Someone in front of me in 6. Then another person in like row 14… Maybe they spread us out to prevent us from making noise 🙂
How was your stay in Pyongyang? Do you have a review anywhere. You did a careful factual review of the flight. Much appreciated
No, no reviews of anything in Pyongyang. I really enjoyed the trip, though. Found it super interesting. Did the classic stuff: DMZ, Kaesong border village, bronze statues, stayed at Yanggakdo, Juche Tower, military museum (and captured US spy ship) and we were there for Children’s Day so went to some performances at the children’s center. Plus shopping in a department store. Overall quite interesting to see the “other side” of things you’ve heard about many times.
Great Review, I’m glad you did it. Thanks!
My main concern would be the aircraft; maintenance, certifications, flight hours on the skin. I can do without the food and flight attendants (except for the obvious safety related stuff), but I need to see that some agency has certified the plane to international standards.
They fly this route over and over and over and have a strong record (minimal flight irregularities) in that time, despite the fact they continually refuse to open their books. The ratio of flights to incidents is super strong.
Well you can always choose not to fly them. The FAA said that the B737 Max was airworthy, was it?
Did you tell them that you’re vegan to avoid possible mystery meat or because it’s true?
I’m vegan, have been for over 15 years.