No Flight From Hell on North Korean Airline

October 31, 2010

in Odds & Ends Stories

By the end of September I went on a school trip to North Korea by flying the national airline Air Koryo. I would like to share my unique experience of flying with them. If you are expecting this to be a true flight from hell, it’s not. I’d go as far as saying Air Koryo is better than Australian and American carriers I’ve been on, but if you do not agree with me, that’s up to you. I was on flight JS252 from Beijing to Pyongyang onboard a Tu-204. For those who don’t know, the Tu-204 was a Russian plane that was designed to compete with the American Boeing 757 series during the late 1980s.

Check-in was done by the Air China staff at the Air Koryo check-in desks which wasn’t too surprising (I called the Beijing office the previous day and the woman who picked up the phone was a North Korean woman who didn’t speak English or Chinese). The process was simple: we handed over our passport, visa and check-in bags. I should mention that checking in bags with Air Koryo IS FREE! We literally didn’t have a queue so we waited for approximately 3 minutes before it was our turn.

After check-in we go through the usual security checks which went uneventfully, so let’s skip that bit. I boarded the plane, only to be welcomed by young flight attendants who gave everyone a warm smile. I was wondering how much money the airline spends on providing them cosmetics since they have pale skin without any pimples or freckles like the L’Oreal ads seen on TV. The oldest flight attendant onboard appeared to be around 24 years old and the youngest flight attendant approximately 19. None of them were in the too skinny or too fat category *cough cough United Airlines*.

I made my way through to the Economy Class cabin and to my surprise, they actually had leather seats. The plane was new and very clean, everything looking crisp, there were no smudges and there was no “airplane smell.” There was plenty of leg room and seat width, unlike how I was expecting to be cramped in a small chair like the Qantas A330s. I had approximately 37 cm in leg room and seat width.

During pushback, a flight attendant started handing out newspapers and magazines in English, Chinese and Korean (aka propaganda in disguise). Let’s say one of the articles was about how South Korea is one of the most sexist countries in the world hmmmmm…

While we were waiting for take-off, a flight attendant sat next to me (I had 3 seats to myself) and greeted me personally. She asked whether it was my first time visiting her country and upon saying yes, she attempted to list the places I should visit in the trip with her limited English. She particularly mentioned about Arirang (The Mass Games) which is the world’s biggest performance as stated by the Guinness Book of World Records, and how we should thank ‘The Great Leader” for making this event possible to everyone. After our conversation she said “Please enjoy the flight and have a great time in the DPRK!” before returning to her seat. I was not just impressed by the effort she is making in her job, I was wondering when was the last time this happened on a flight in the 21st century?

After take-off, our plane flew at a relatively low altitude over the mountains north of Beijing, which was something that never happened on my flights in and out of Beijing. After flying over the mountainous region with some pictures on my camera of the beautiful scenery, the plane climbed again and reached its cruising altitude. I guess we just got a free tour out of this flight!

Lunch was served shortly after the plane reached its cruising altitude of 32,000 feet with a cup of orange cider or mineral water. We were given North Korean fried rice, deep-fried salmon cutlet, a bit of kimchi, canned fruits and roasted chicken slices. The food was great except I was stuffed by the time I finished everything.

The flight arrived on time at Pyongyang Sunan airport, and after a long taxi from the runway in the middle of nowhere we got on buses which took us to the main terminal.

Overall I’d say this had to be one of the best in-flight experiences I had in a while. Let’s compare this experience to the Qantas A330 flight I had 4 years ago from Sydney to Beijing…

Everyone’s seat back entertainment system kept crashing, so the flight attendant had no choice but to reset the system. We were told not to touch anything until after 30 minutes. The person behind me needed to use the bathroom, and once again the seats were so cramped that whenever he stretched himself he would kick my seat. Let’s say I was trying to be as still as possible to prevent any discomfort for the passenger in front of me.

After 15 minutes my PTV showed the welcome screen, so I called the flight attendant to ask if I could start using the system again. What was the reply? ARE YOU SERIOUS?!? WERE YOU EVEN LISTENING TO THE ANNOUNCEMENT WE MADE?!? ABSOLUTELY NO ONE TOUCHES THAT THING UNTIL THIRTY MINUTES AFTER THE SYSTEM RESETS ITSELF!!! HOW CAN YOU NOT UNDERSTAND SIMPLE INSTRUCTIONS?!?

One hour later, an air steward was offering tea to the passengers. An elderly Chinese woman who was 3 rows away from him raised her cup and weakly said “tea please.” The flight attendant’s eyes went really big and said NO NO NO NO NO! YOU WILL HAVE TO WAIT! Once he started pouring her tea, he said “There! That wasn’t too hard was it? You need to learn to have patience! It is a very nice thing to have. Do you understand?”

Needless to say,  how can the North Koreans be better at treating their “guests” than the Australian and American airlines who herd passengers into a metal tube as though they were cattle?

– The Teenaged Tourist

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Salamandra October 31, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Its true All united states airlines are too greedy worst service not help only money money


rerere October 31, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Some are good, like the low cost ones


Dina November 1, 2010 at 12:55 pm

When did Qantas become a US airline? 😉


Karl October 31, 2010 at 2:55 pm

Most likely it is true what you were writing about that airline. But those seats are 37 cm wide? This would be 15 inches and seams just as wide or even less than in western airplanes. Not very convertible as you want me to believe.


rerere October 31, 2010 at 3:56 pm

I will NOT fly on a Russian plane. Embraer, ATR, Boeing, Bombardier, Airbus YES, Russian NO


Chris July 21, 2011 at 2:34 pm

I know exactly what you are talking about, I feel the same way but when I searched up the Tu-204, it seemed like a nice plane


david October 31, 2010 at 4:27 pm

I have flown qantas quite a few time (10+) and the flight attendants were always friendly, not the friendliest but were always friendly, so i believe that you are over exagerating that a little or the guy just had a real bad day

and the seats on the a330 are not as bad as other airlines and on many boeings

the friendliest flight attendants in the sky are the Singapore Airlines FA's


DSD November 1, 2010 at 10:10 am

How does that happen? Its called Propaganda. VERY few North Koreans can afford to fly; let alone be allowed to fly anywhere. As a result the airline mostly carries tourists and foreign dignitaries and as such has been configured for more room with less passengers. It conveys the feel of prosperity. Same goes with the magazines, food, leather seats and other amenities. They are designed to convey the feel of the national airline of a prosperous country, which North Korea is not. In fact the food you ate on that flight is probably better than what most North Koreans eat on a daily basis.

As for the attendant who greeted you by name and sat and chatted with you; chances are she works for the DPRK National Intelligence Agency, so that wasn't exactly a social visit.


Dina November 1, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Exactly what I was going to say.


j November 2, 2010 at 12:53 am

Don't be naive enough to believe the flight attendant did not already know it was your first time visiting north korea, and I agree with DSD she was either in with intelligence or like any north korean who leaves the country she was told how to act and what to say while her family was being held hostage in north korea. As for qantas….well you just got done saying that you were informed not to touch the ptv for 30 minutes and you go and ask 15 minutes later if you can touch it, I understand the flight attendant's frustration with you


Owen November 2, 2010 at 8:40 am

I can see you're young so I'll try to be kind…but DUH! Why do you imagine the N. Korean state airline gives you a good experience? It wouldn't be for propoganda reasons would it? Nah…

Seriously, you should learn a little something about politics and economics. the average No. Korean NEVER gets to fly, can't even move in fact without authorities' permission. You're comparing airlines in a free society with one run by a dictatorship. Apples and oranges.


David November 2, 2010 at 11:17 am

Now Dina what was the point of qantas isn't a us airline? Who said it was?


Dina November 3, 2010 at 11:19 am

"Salamandra October 31, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Its true All united states airlines are too greedy worst service not help only money money"

Since the only other airline the OP talked about was Qantas…


david November 3, 2010 at 12:18 pm

read again……..United was mentioned


Dina November 4, 2010 at 1:37 pm

You're right… but only briefly. Still strikes me as hilarious, though, that the only other airline discussed *in detail* was an Australian one.

(And really… I've flown on a number of airlines from a number of countries, and they've all been shit. So my point stands!)


The Un Racist one November 25, 2010 at 12:04 am


Firstly – you are generalizing all airlines you have been on are shit. What about Air France, British Airways, Lufthansa, all good (really good airlines) compared to airlines in Australia *MEGA COUGH QANTAS, JET STAR, which they even charge you for beverages (note this applied in the year 2009 october 21st).*


madachode November 3, 2010 at 4:38 am

What kind of commie punk goes on vacation to north korea and then is able to leave? This is a planted story.


Troy November 3, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Australia is at the bottom of the English speaking ladder and there are some there who like to use it as a springboard to proclaim their beloved Orient as the new Athens of the future. This story is quite ignorable and by the way ask these so called exceptional and hospitible people what they like to do to Puppies. The bait is cast. Cheers


Dina November 4, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Your trolling doesn't even make sense. Try harder!


ps November 6, 2010 at 2:34 am

Wow. Glad to see Air Koryo upgraded their fleet. I did a few Beijing to Pyongyang hauls in the early 90's. Plane of choice was an Ilyushin that was aged even by Aeroflot standards and pre- Dear Leader as Great Leader was still around. Your flight shows the surreal nature of traveling via the DPRK express is still intact. Perfect flight attendants, bountiful food and a homage to the (at that time) great leader, now eternal president I think. For me, it was too perfect. Thank goodness I was abused on Northwest when I flew back from Beijing to get me rooted in reality again!


Owen November 27, 2010 at 9:07 am

LOL….and now it appears that the Dear Leader's son is being groomed for leadership. N. Korea is nothing more than oriental despotism, where the emperor is gussied up with communist rhetoric and propaganda.


ps November 27, 2010 at 10:50 am

what happens to the armored train and comfort brigade?


Eric December 30, 2010 at 11:56 am

Actually, In the US, Southwest really isn't bad. It is cattle car service to be sure. But the flight attendendents are friendly and professional. United airlines has some of the worst customer service ever. Especially on the ground. Be interesting to see how the UAL / Contintal merger deals with cusstomer service. Don't think much of Lufthansa or BA either. For my money and vote, LOT Polish, CSA and Continental are the better full service airlines I've used over the years.


Vik November 4, 2012 at 10:58 am

I agree with Eric.
If you want to fly, choose LOT Polish Airlines for the best value for money!


Marianne October 27, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Air koryo is rated a 1 star airline by skytrax. This is the lowest possible rating, and the only 1 star airline in the world. Aeroflot is actually rated a 3 star airline!


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