The aviation entity Skytrax is responsible for publishing a ranking showing the best and worst airlines in the world.
And for several years, North Korea’s state-owned airline, Air Koryo, was at the bottom of this list, receiving very low marks because, for example, of the quality of its in-flight services and the structure of its planes.
But, going beyond the Skytrax assessment, what is it like to be an Air Koryo passenger? Is it a traumatic experience to fly with the “worst airline in the world”?
Brazilian Mike Weiss (@mikeweissaonde) has already made two trips with the North Korean company, with a round-trip ticket between China and Pyongyang, the capital of Kim Jong-un’s country.
With an extensive background in the world of aviation (he has been to more than 150 countries and took hundreds of flights in his life), Mike has had unique experiences with Air Koryo.
“The outward route was between Beijing and Pyongyang, with the flight carried out with a Tupolev aircraft manufactured in Russia in 2009”, describes the Brazilian. “And the return flight was between the North Korean capital and Shanghai, in an Antonov plane made in Ukraine in 2013.”
Mike says he could have gone to North Korea by train from China, as many travelers have done in recent years. But he preferred to take the air route.
I insisted on going by plane, because I have a passion for aviation and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to get to know Air Koryo up close. I already knew about the company’s bad ratings, but flying with them would be like getting a rare sticker for my album.”
“The duration of each flight was approximately 2 hours. During that time, I kept my eyes wide open to experience every moment of the trip”, he says.
Tension and care with the newspaper
Mike Weiss had a difficult experience with Air Koryo even before the trip.
The company’s air ticket was purchased along with a complete tour package to North Korea, which also included an entry visa to the country, accommodation, transfers, food and guide service in Kim Jong-un’s nation.
However, a few days before departure, Air Koryo canceled, without explanation, Mike’s return flight between Pyongyang and China.
This raised a great deal of concern, as he would likely not be able to enter the country if he did not have a ticket to leave after his trip was over.
Air Koryo only got me a new flight three days before my departure in China. It was a sense of relief.”
The pre-shipment tensions, however, did not end there.
“The visa is another issue that generated suspense, as it would only be delivered to me on the day of boarding, right before check-in. And I didn’t know if the visa had been approved until that moment”, he reports. “But everything worked out. When I arrived at Beijing airport, there was a Chinese travel agent who sold me the package. Smiling, he handed me the visa.”
After going through a quick and orderly check-in, the Brazilian headed for the Air Koryo plane that would take him to North Korea.
At the entrance of the aircraft, passengers could pick up, free of charge, copies in English of “The Pyongyang Times”, a newspaper controlled by the North Korean regime and which usually carries headlines such as “King Jong-un visits vegetable farm”.
And the publication should be handled with extreme care.
“I was informed that the newspaper should not be folded in the pages where important figures from North Korea appear. And we should not throw the publication in the trash”, he explains, saying that this can be seen as an attitude of disrespect towards the country’s representatives.
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Upon boarding, Mike found the atmosphere of the plane that would take him to North Korea very orderly.
“The Tupolev was very clean, with classical music on the soundtrack. Cordial with the passengers, the flight attendants were all women and wore red blazers, white shirts, hair tied and discreet makeup”.
On board monitors, in turn, were shown propaganda-looking videos in favor of the North Korean regime.
“After takeoff, a video started showing children playing happily on the beach and in a garden in North Korea. And then there was a concert by the North Korean group Moranbong, one of Kim Jong-un’s favorite bands that has several patriotic songs about Kim Jong-un himself”, says the Brazilian.
Mike says the plane was comfortable, but the individual reading lights and the button to call the flight attendants didn’t work.
And at mealtime, passengers were served a mysterious hamburger.
“I couldn’t identify what that hamburger was made of. It was two tasteless slices of bread, a single leaf of dark lettuce, about three strands of red cabbage and a cold meat that didn’t taste like anything. or pork. Or a mixture of the remains of both. To help me swallow the hamburger of unidentifiable provenance, I was given a glass of water and plastic cutlery, as well as a wet washcloth, which seemed like a luxury item in that context.”
Mike arrived safely in North Korea, where he visited, always guided by a local guide, places that promote the greatness of the Asian country, such as the Great Monument of Mansudae, where there are 20 meters high statues of Kim Il-sung. and Kim Jong-Il, the late North Korean leaders who are, respectively, the grandfather and father of the country’s current ruler, Kim Jong-un.
The house where Kim Il-sung would have spent his childhood and a museum dedicated to the Korean War (which displays American weapons captured in the conflict that, in the 1950s, pitted the United States against North Korea) were also part of the tour.
On both the outward and return flights, however, the Brazilian did not have the feeling of being on the worst airline on the planet, despite the problems experienced on the trip.
“At no time did I find it justifiable to be classified as the worst airline in the world”, he says.
Most flight attendants in the United States, for example, have a lot to learn about cordiality with North Koreans. And I’ve been in much worse airlines”
“I’ve flown in Somalia with luggage piled up in the emergency exit row. And in Mozambique, I received my checked luggage soaked in goat’s blood,” he says. “Air Koryo seemed to me to be more organized and safer than many companies out there.”