North Korea’s Vintage Airliners Banned From China

It's Game Over for Korea's Decades Old Soviet Fleet
January 17th, 2013

Click pictures to expand (Source: Tis Meyer)

North Korea’s national carrier Air Koryo, infamous for being the world’s only ‘one star airline‘, is about to have its wings clipped, after new Chinese flight restrictions prevent the company’s rickety old fleet from posing a safety risk by entering Chinese airspace.

Air Koryo was banned from entering European airspace in 2006 due to its poor safety credentials, but now its main destination China has also followed suit. Moving forward, the North Korean airline will be obliged to replace several aircraft types on its Sino-DPRK services or cease running some flights all together. As a result of the new rules, Air Koryo will be retiring decades old Soviet-era Tupolev and Ilyushin planes on routes into and out of China, replacing them completely with a modern fleet of expensive Russian jets.

With the news comes the end of an era for Air Koryo explained David Thompson of Juche Travel Services, a tour agency that specializes in aviation tours of North Korea,

Today is a sad day for aviation enthusiasts worldwide, with the retirement of these majestic machines from international services. But this particular aeronautical cloud does have a silver lining, as these classic airliners will continue to operate internally for domestic charter flights within the DPRK.

Air Koryo earned a dubious reputation in some quarters for flying in and out of Pyongyang with vintage aircraft that lacked many of the security systems now required by modern fleets. For this reason, aircraft like Air Koryo’s IL-62 (1960), Tu-134 (1966), and Tu-154 (1968) were all unauthorized from flying to the European Union when a ban came into place in 2006 (despite the airline then having no routes to European destinations). It’s these same aircraft which have now been banned from flying between the DPRK and China.

Perhaps aware of forthcoming changes in Chinese legislation and keen to shake off a negative international reputation, in 2008 Air Koryo invested in two brand new Tupolev Tu-204 series aircraft, both of which have since been used on a variety of international routes, including on some to China. Following that purchase the EU reacted positively by modifying its ban on Air Koryo in 2010 to allow the two newest aircraft access to EU skies.

While the new Chinese ban on Air Koryo’s vintage Tupolev and Ilyushin planes will hit some key flights into China, the North Korean airline’s investment in the TU-204 series will allow it to continue to operate in and out of China, albeit with perhaps lower service frequency in the event of technical problems. However, with another Tu-204 variant on order and a new Antonov An-148-100B awaiting delivery from Ukraine, the airline’s modernization program will soon put it in a position to compensate for the potential of any decreased flight frequency.

In November 2012 Air Koryo announced that between April and October 2013 it would expand service to Beijing from two flights per week to five, a move that will likely be facilitated by the delivery of the newest aircraft.  The route expansion followed increasing tourism demand to North Korea in the 2012 season.

Interestingly, Air Koryo’s one star rating comes not from its security record, but due to in-flight service ratings – a charge that anyone who has flown budget European carriers like Ryanair will find hard to believe.

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.