Air Koryo and DPRK tourism update

This morning the International Herald Tribune published an interesting AP story on Air Koryo, North Korea’s state airline.

As has been mentioned before, Air Koryo recently began upgrading its fleet–but guess who will seemingly be on the first flight? 

The airline also has taken delivery of its first new jet in years. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, quoting diplomatic sources in China, reported Thursday that North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong Il was likely to fly to Vietnam and China on the new plane next week.

Kim is widely believed to shun air travel. His previous trips abroad by luxurious special train were shrouded in secrecy and reports speculating on his destinations beforehand were not always accurate.

And although the economy at large is not doing so well, Air Koryo business is brisk. 

“The golden days are now[.]  They’re busier than ever,” says Nick Bonner of Koryo Tours. (paragraph edited)

In 1998, his Koryo Tours — which despite being similarly named for an ancient Korean dynasty is unrelated to the airline — escorted just 98 tourists to North Korea. The number doubled to 200 in 2006 and last year jumped to a still minuscule 1,100. Some of his customers also get into the country by train, a much longer trip.

Bonner said a roundtrip ticket on Air Koryo between Beijing and Pyongyang costs 2,550 Chinese yuan (US$365; €230) for economy and 4,340 yuan (US$621; €390) for business class.

What are Air Koryo’s most recent routes:

Air Koryo now has just three regularly scheduled international routes. Domestic service is said to be virtually nonexistent.

It flies roundtrip three times a week between Pyongyang and Beijing and twice a week to the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, an important source of trade for North Korea.

The other is return service once a week to Vladivostok. A flight to Khabarovsk, another city in the Russian Far East, stopped in 2005. The airline also had flew to Bangkok and Macau in recent years.

About the fleet upgrade: 

Perhaps illustrative of Air Koryo’s improving fortunes, in December it acquired a twin-engine Tu-204-300 jet manufactured by Russia’s OAO Tupolev, adding to its fleet of other Tupolev, Antonov and Ilyushin jets and turboprops.

Tupolev mentions the deal on its Web site, though did not disclose financial terms when asked.

A non-North Korean with intimate knowledge of the airline, who refused to be identified, confirmed the deal, adding North Korean pilots were receiving training in Russia with the craft set to begin operations at the end of April.

Although the article insinuates that economics are largely behind the fleet upgrade, a little nudging by China certainly did not hurt.  China gave Air Koryo a deadline to meet Beijing safety standards.  But despite China’s concern for air safety, Air Koryo still has one of the best records in the business:

Though concerns about safety have been raised — Air Koryo is banned from flying in the European Union — the carrier has apparently had just one major accident, a crash in West Africa in 1983 when the airline was known under a different name.

The plane, an Ilyushin 62 carrying 23 people, was en route to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, on an “international non-scheduled passenger” flight, when it went down in the Fouta Djall mountains, according to the Aviation Safety Network Web site. All aboard perished.

Air Koryo made its first flight to South Korea in August of 2000 to ferry 100 separated family members for temporary reunions with long-lost relatives in the South. The airline has made occasional flights to South Korea for special purposes as relations have warmed in recent years.

The article does not mention the other (minor) mishap in 2006:

On August 15, 2006 aircraft from Air Koryo (Tupolev 154B-2) on an international scheduled passenger flight from Beijing, China (Beijing Capital Airport) to Pyongyang, North Korea (Sunan International Airport) experienced a runway mishap (exited runway) during landing rollout after landing in bad weather at Sunan International Airport. No injuries were reported and damage to plane was minor. (Wikipedia)

Read the full article here:
North Korea’s quirky Air Koryo survives and, increasingly, appears to thrive
International Herald Tribune (AP)


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