Air Koryo is often billed as the world’s only 1-star airline and for serving the infamous Air Koryo mystery burger, but what is it like to fly and eat with them? YPT and our tour guides have been flying with Air Koryo since 2008 and have watched the company grow in popularity, acquire four new jets and also go through some fairly harsh UN sanctions. Here is our experience with flying Air Koryo.
Who is Air Koryo?
Air Koryo is the national flag carrier of North Korea (DPRK) and it is state-run, owned, and operated. Air Koryo have multiple weekly scheduled flights between Beijing and Pyongyang making it the busiest flight route for the airline. Other scheduled international flight routes include the Chinese city of Shenyang located near the border of North Korea, and Vladivostok on the east coast of Russia. There were previously flights chartered between Shanghai and Macau. Over the years Air Koryo had flights between Bangkok in Thailand, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Kuwait, and Singapore.
What are the Air Koryo planes like?
Air Koryo have an astonishing collection of Soviet made planes that still to this day operate on their domestic flight routes and are perfect for those seeking a nostalgic or an incredibly unique airline experience. These planes are kept in very well condition and are maintained in both North Korea and Russia.
The latest Tu-204-300, Tu-204-100B and two Antonov An-148 jets are used on their international routes to China and Russia to meet all international safety standards. It is also possible to fly to Pyongyang from Beijing on an Air China flight.
Checking in with Air Koryo
All Air Koryo flights from Beijing depart from Terminal 2 of Beijing PEK Airport and the check-in counter is found within the international departure area. We recommend checking in two hours before your flight is scheduled to depart as queues at the counter are always certain to be delayed with North Koreans returning home to Pyongyang and checking in multiple luggage and boxes of supplies.
In Beijing, check-in staff are Air China employees that speak English well with an Air Koryo manager supervising. It is possible to request a window seat for your flight unless the flight is incredibly busy which happens during national holidays or throughout summer. You are required to show your passport and DPRK visa when checking in and going through immigration. No lighters or portable battery packs are allowed to be checked in with luggage according to China Aviation Laws. When departing Pyongyang, check-in counter staff are Air Koryo staff and speak English fluently.
Air Koryo luggage allowance is 23kg per person for economy, and 30kg for business flyers. The carry-on luggage limit is 5kg but this not strictly enforced. Air Koryo does not have a frequent flyer program and are not associated with any other frequent flyer programs.
It’s also worth noting here that although Air Koryo have their own booking website, it is not possible as a tourist to book your own Air Koryo flights. Registered North Korean tour operators can arrange this for you.
What are the Air Koryo cabin crew like?
As you step onto your Air Koryo flight you are greeted by smiles and a North Korean hello by the cabin crew as they direct you to your seat and hand out English versions of the Pyongyang Times and Korea Today monthly magazine. The purser speaks English fluently while other cabin crew members may have adequate English, Russian or Chinese skills.
However, an absolute downside of enjoying your Air Koryo flight is being politely told by the staff not to photograph or video your experience if you hold up your phone or your camera in front of them. It is possible to take sneaky photos when landing or taking off from Pyongyang Airport when cabin crew are seated, or of you inflight meal but bear in mind if caught you will be asked to delete.
Flying with Air Koryo
Seating on Air Koryo is fairly comfortable but I feel that the seats are a little more compact much like other budget airlines, possibly losing a few centimetres on the legroom. If you were to swap to an empty seat during your flight the staff will turn a blind eye unless you sit in the fire exit seat where you’ll be ask to go back to your original seating.
Seats on Air Koryo flights do not have headrest monitors but LCD screens pop down from above during the flight to show a random documentary made in the DPRK on apples or cat fish farms, or the latest performance from the Moranbong. Not great but luckily flights between Beijing and Pyongyang are 2 and a half hours long. I recommend bringing a Nintendo Switch to keep yourself occupied during your flight.
During your flight the cabin crew may hand you pamphlets of North Korean made items being available from the duty free cart. Before arriving the cart will be pushed down the aisle selling ginseng, Korean traditional medicine, dolls, and books. I recommend holding off these purchases as they can be bought in Pyongyang much cheaper than the asking price with Air Koryo but a great chance for a last minute gift on your way out.
Before your flight descends to Pyongyang the cabin crew will hand out three separate papers consisting of an immigration, quarantine, and customs form to each passenger. The forms are in Korean and English, however if you are handed a Chinese version you may ask for a English form. Your YPT guide will assist with filling in your form and we recommend doing it before landing so you may quickly pass through North Korean immigration and customs.
Inflight meals and drinks on Air Koryo
Prior to 2013, Air Koryo had access to Air China’s business class food prep service and were able to serve up rather impressive inflight meals such as chicken curry with freshly cooked bread. Over time this changed and flights in and out of North Korea began using meals prepared in Pyongyang where the mystery burger was introduced to almost every flight. The burger got its name by the questionable pork patty used between the sweet sugar buns and mayonnaise. However, over the years the quality of the burger has improved and is actually not so bad these days. Although the name will forever remain, even the cabin crew have caught onto it. Sadly, gone are the days of the glorious inflight meals on Air Koryo.
A neat little trick to pull if you’re not game enough to experience the new and improved mystery burger, you can opt for the vegetarian version of the burger which includes cheese, tomatoes and lettuce. It’s prepared fresh and is a decent alternative. Vegans may request no cheese.
In 2015, Air Koryo no longer offers alcohol on their flights instead introducing their very own Coca Cola and non-alcoholic cider. Coffee, tea, Chinese orange juice, North Korean soda water, and North Korean milk are also available.
Verdict on Air Koryo
What makes flying with Air Koryo unique to us and our tourists is the moment you step onto your Air Koryo flight your North experience starts before you arrive into Pyongyang. The harsh one-star rating of Air Koryo reflects mostly on the food, onboard entertainment and the lack of a frequent flyer program. The cabin crew are incredibly polite and helpful, the planes are well cleaned and maintained, and usually Air Koryo are given higher priority of departing and arrival at Beijing PEK Airport keeping you on schedule. With three incidents within the last 75 years of the airline, I feel more safe with Air Koryo than your typical Chinese airline.