North Korean Airline Dubbed ‘World’s Worst’ Finally Gets On Board With Online Booking

Let’s take a poll: would you fly an airline rated the “world’s worst”? No? Now tell us, if that same airline was owned by North Korea would you consider it any more worthy of your ticket price? Probably not, you say?

The good news is that if you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, booking on Air Koryo just got a lot easier. The Skytrax one-star rated airline is selling its flights to China and Russia online for the first time.

Although we’re not sure that the website will add anything to the airline’s reputation. According to the Telegraph:

Early reports seems to suggest the website is unlikely to help the North Korean flag carrier shake its one-star rating, however. Users have already reported slow response speeds, with some searches not offering any availability for flights, while others result in an error message appearing on the screen.

What happens on a one-star airline? According to Startrax: “very poor quality performance … with poor, inconsistent standards of … service … in on-board and airport environments.”

At present, the airline utilizes a number of planes constructed in the former Soviet Union and is the only airline rated as one-star worldwide. That said, there are 29 airlines ranked just above this dubious distinction as two-star, which include names you may have flown, including Air Zimbabwe, Bulgaria Air and Ryanair.

[Photo credit: screenshot from Air Koryo]

Eight interesting facts about North Korea’s airline

What do you know about Air Koryo? Probably not much. The state-run airline for North Korea, it’s the only realistic way you can fly into the country, unless you have some sort of crazy commando resources at your disposal. Of course, there’s a lot you have to do before booking your ticket, and getting a visa can be quite difficult for Americans and other westerners. If you do make it through the red tape though, you’ll find yourself with more options than you realized.

So, ready to book your trip to Arirang and sample the beer and pizza of the most reclusive nation on the planet? Here’s what you need to know about the airline that will take you there:

%Gallery-105693%1. More destinations than you’d expect: the Beijing-Pyongyang route is the one for which Air Koryo is “famous,” but the state-sponsored airline actually connects to eight other cities: Moscow Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Shenyang, Shanghai, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Kuwait City. Of course, if you want to use these cities to enter North Korea, you’ll still need to jump through the many hoops necessary to secure a visa.

2. Road warriors don’t get squat: are you a frequent flier to North Korea? Well, don’t expect much in exchange for your loyalty. While airlines around the world offer rewards programs, a mileage run on Air Koryo is worthless, as the carrier doesn’t have a program, according to a comment it made on its Facebook page.

3. A new home: as of July 15, 2011, the airline’s new terminal at Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang is open for business! The airline claims on Facebook, “The new terminal features modernised facilities for luggage, security, customs, border control and the list goes on to an extent.”

4. Mongolia may be next: it’s always hard to tell when Air Koryo is going to add a route, but this comment to a prospective customer offers some hope: “Flights to Uanbator have been tossed up for a while now, since there is a decent amount of DPRK citizens traveling to Mongolia for a number of reasons. Also vice versa. We havn’t [sic] heard of any flights for August, but we will make some inquiries.”

5. Kuwait’s on the map for a reason: it may not be as busy as the New York-to-London route, but Pyongyang and Kuwait City seem to comprise an important city-pair for Air Koryo. According to the person operating the Air Koryo Facebook page, “Between 5 and 10,000 North Korean workers currently reside in Kuwait. These numbers change weekly with the flights by Air Koryo now enabling the DPR Korean direct flights to Pyongyang.”

6. True dialogue in social media: social media marketers have always discussed the importance of “dialogue” via social media, rather than generating revenue. Well, Air Koryo is a fantastic model. A user responded to the above claim about North Koreans living in Kuwait, “‎between 5 and 10000″ … Wow, that is an accurate answer !” The airline’s intended range was probably “between 5,000 and 10,000,” but the fan appears to have a fetish for the exact. Showing a bit of style, Air Koryo replied, “We’re [not] exactly demographers here, so exact figures are beyond us. Sorry.” The missing word in the response makes the whole exchange even funnier.

7. Online check-in: okay, this is not in Air Koryo’s future, probably because the carrier has a different set of priorities. According to SFGate: “‘You kidding right?’ Air Koryo responded. “There are many things to do before even looking at ‘Online check-in’ such as actually creating a website.'”

8. Don’t expect much love from the cabin crew: in the United States, you only need to worry about bad serviceand the occasional meltdown. In North Korea, the flight attendants will great you with such pleasantries as “I hate America!” But, they do follow it with, “What would you like to drink today, sir?”

Sir?! Now that’s service!

[photos via Wikipedia]

North Korea: flight attendants redefine customer service

There’s no shortage of gripes among both business and leisure travelers about the level of service we receive from the airlines. We’ve all had our shares of miserable customer service experiences, from bad experiences with orange juice to getting bumped by the beverage cart. Yet, nothing compares to what you experience on Air Koryo, it seems.

There’s only one airline that flies in and out of North Korea. From Beijing to Pyongyang and back, Air Koryo takes care of everything you need. Yet, unique characteristics of the hiring process lead to a vastly different experience from that found here in the United States. The planes are described as “rickety,” and one can assume there will be little more than the basics (well, this part is just like home).

%Gallery-105693%Randy Schmidt, cameraman and editor for CBS News, recounts his recent exchange with a flight attendant on Air Koryo:

“Where are you from?” the North Korean flight attendant asks me.

“I’m American, but I live in Japan.”

“I hate America! I hate Japan! What would you like to drink today, sir?” she said.

Perhaps it was because the flight was international, but at least the guy got a beverage!

Schmidt further observes:

The comment is not personal. North Koreans are schooled to believe that America and Japan are enemies, but that hatred is directed at the governments of those countries, not at individuals.

[photo via Wikipedia]

I stand corrected: Air Koryo planes are not made of bamboo

So last month, fresh out of detention in North Korea and noticeably high from the experience, I went on NPR and claimed, among some other rather dumb stuff, that “Air Koryo [the official North Korean airline] was literally made out of bamboo.”

Yes bold claim, especially with that underscored “literally.” And now an angry NPR listener has called me out on it.

I just returned from a trip to North Korea, traveling with Koryo Tours. We flew Air Koryo, the national airline, both directions, and it is not “literally held together with bamboo”. Our plane from Beijing to Pyongyang was a new Tupolev model airplane, cleaner than most planes I’ve been on recently in the US. Our flight out was on an older Ilyushin model aircraft, which was again clean and well-maintained. Both flights were right on time, and had good service.

After extensively research, and by that I mean Googling “Can I make a plane out of bamboo?” and coming up with zero hits, I’ve decided to issue a PUBLIC RETRACTION. That’s right.

I am officially backing down from my seditious statement that Air Koryo is a crappy airline. Heck, they even give you The Onion, North Korean edition The Pyongyang Times free of charge.