WASHINGTON DC – North Korea’s national airline Air Koyro has launched a new website, inviting overseas visitors to book their flights to and from Pyongyang for three destinations in China and Russia, despite North Korean citizens themselves still being denied access to the internet.
Previously famed for being the world’s only one star airline, Air Koryo was deemed so unsafe that it was banned from flying in European airspace under EU law. But since 2007 Air Koryo has been making a significant effort to rebuild its brand, purchasing two ultra-modern TU-204 aircraft, renovating Pyongyang’s Sunan airport, and even buying a fleet of low-door buses to collect arriving passengers on the tarmac.
Having made a splash in 2009 with the emergence of an “official” Air Koryo Facebook page, the airlines’ new website comes one year after NK News revealed that the social media presence was actually nothing more than a fan website, run by enthusiastic Russian air crews. But for a country whose population requires special permission to travel abroad, for now only foreign travelers will be able to benefit from the site’s re-emergence.
Offering flights to Beijing, Shenyang and Vladivostok, the new website promises passengers a range of perks that have been long-forgotton by the rest of the airline industry. Passengers who miss their flights or simply don’t show up are entitled a full refund “without any additional charge or fee”; dogs, cats or birds under 5kg can travel for free under a passenger’s seat; and meals and drinks are provided on board free-of-charge.
But while the new online booking system might come as welcome news for some, tests conducted by NK News reveal no flights currently available for booking, even on days they are known to exist. To make things worse, even if tickets will ever be available, credit card payments are currently not possible, with would-be passengers required to make cumbersome deposits using the international wire transfer system.
Regular visitor and North Korea expert Dr. Leonid Petrov today said of the news,
The new Air Koryo web site remains as dysfunctional as the rest of North Korean economy….Clearly, this web site is created with the purpose to impress the people who have never thought of traveling to Pyongyang. Those who have been to North Korea know that booking a ticket with Air Koryo is the easiest part of such trip: obtaining the DPRK visa is the real challenge. But even accredited diplomats and regular business travelers, who are welcome in Pyongyang and have open visas, will not find this new website particularly useful because it is not accessible from South Korea, it functions like a primitive database of flights but does not book anything, and nobody would feel safe to entrust his or her personal information to it.
Until just a few years ago Air Koryo’s fleet consisted solely of vintage Soviet-era aircraft that made just a handful of flights each week to neighboring China and Russia. Its ancient fleet did however make occasional flights into EU airspace, and inspections of aircraft on the ground in France and Germany revealed serious safety concerns which ultimately led to a ban of all North Korean civilian aircraft from EU skies.
Keen to improve its international standing and modernize as part of its efforts to become a “strong and prosperous state”, in late 2007 Air Koyro took delivery of the first of two ultra-modern Tupolev Tu-204 aircraft. Now forming the backbone of its international services, these two aircraft in 2010 led to a partial roll-back of the EU ban which allowed the airline to start (ultimately failed) talks on resuming charter services between Pyongyang and Berlin.
But there’s still a long way to go. While its international flights have undoubtedly improved significantly in recent years, recent tourists who have flown internally report an all-together different experience. One recent visitor today told NK News:
Flying to Chongjin last year in a decades old AN-24, one air hostess at the back of the plane made a call on her mobile telephone literally as we were taking off, talking until the signal presumably cut out as a result of our ascent. Made me feel great about safety!
Try and book your tickets today: Click here for the new Air Koryo website.