China Grounds North Korea’s Air Koryo


Here is a scene. Amid the various incantations of Airbus 300s and Boeing 700s throbbing at Beijing’s PEK airport, a weird looking that-can’t-possibly-fly aircraft lands from Pyongyang. The pilot, heady with triumph, tumbles out of his harness and kisses the ground, thanking the Motherland for declaring this his last flight.

The incoming is a pockmarked and perhaps coal-fired Soviet-era Ilyushin with more miles on it than all the Apollo flights combined. It parks next to a shiny fleet of Air China’s modern Western-built aircraft that come spiced with an artistic red Phoenix on their tails, which is the Chinese name of the airline written in calligraphy by former national leader Deng Xiaoping, according to Air China.

It’s the end of an era. China has finally said nyet to vintage Russian aircraft operated by North Korea’s anarchic Air Koryo. Deng Xiaoping must be rolling over in his mausoleum. The People’s Republic thinks they’re too good for comrades in North Korea.

Air Koryo, the world’s-only-one-star airline, doesn’t have enough pony for moneyed China. Maybe it reminds them of a Mao suit in their land of fashion-label knockoffs, baggy pants and gimme ball caps.

Air Koryo’s sulfurous equipment is so outdated Chinese entrepreneurs aren’t even making any knockoffs. FT members are unfazed.

What’s Kim Jong Un to do? Back in 2006, Europe banned Air Koryo from its airspace with an infrangible set of safety rules, even though the airline had no routes on the continent.

But Air Koryo always had China. Why didn’t North Korea copy Air China’s worldliness and enter the modern jet age as exemplified by this YouTube guiding Air China from the JFK control tower?

Yes, it’s the end of an era, and maybe something more. North Korea has two new aircraft on order for delivery this year.


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Comments (Showing 9 of 9)

  • AlwaysFlyStar at 12:50am January 22, 2013

    First off, you misread, the phoenix is an “artistic transfiguration” of VIP. (You can see it if you look for it) The Chinese characters are the calligraphy of Deng Xiaoping. Secondly, I don’t think Deng Xiaoping would mind the action against the DPRK, as he was merely a nationalist, and cared much more about advancing China than communism or its advancement.

  • Pat+ at 1:49am January 22, 2013

    If I may, I’d like to point out that this article is a bit of an exaggeration. I do get the humorous tone and I understand that you don’t mean for everything to be taken literally. However, there are many inaccuracies.

    Of course, the title itself is incorrect — “China Grounds North Korea’s Air Koryo” — not so much, as you point out only vintage aircraft are banned. Air Koryo owns two Tu-204 aircraft, which alone can operate Air Koryo’s schedule in and out of China, barring maintenance issues. Also, (as you also point out) there are other aircraft on order (one Tupolev and one Antonov at this time.) What this means is that travelers should expect virtually no disruptions, save for equipment swaps, as vintage aircraft are reassigned to Russia, Malaysia and domestic flights. Air Koryo is not grounded.

    “A weird looking that-can’t-possibly-fly aircraft” Really? I doubt the casual onlooker would notice anything suspicious. Sure, the rear engines can look funky… but many DC10s still fly and look just the same. I’d venture to say that a brand new, albeit dirty jet from a major airline can cause more customers to worry about their safety than a vintage Air Koryo airplane. I remember thread on FT about someone fearing for their life because of the tired appearance of their United jet and the obvious use of duct tape… Basically, the appearance of a jet doesn’t mean much, especially to the untrained eye.

    “Air Koryo, the world’s-only-one-star airline”… While this is technically true, reviews on SkyTrax reveal that most Air Koryo passengers don’t actually have any complaints… and in fact are surprised at the service which does include a full hot meal in coach on PEK/FNJ.

    “Back in 2006, Europe banned Air Koryo from its airspace with an infrangible set of safety rules, even though the airline had no routes on the continent.” This is not completely true; Air Koryo used to serve Berlin. Also, the EU lifted the ban for the Tu-204s a couple years later.

    The point about safety is interesting. The EU expressed numerous concerns. Surely, many were true. But some also had to do with the lack of transparency from Air Koryo, and the fact that it was virtually impossible for anyone to inspect their practices. If that’s the case, why did the EU lift the ban for the TU-204s? Nothing had changed in terms of communication or overall policy — only the airframes had changed.

    In fact, it’s worth mentioning that the airline hasn’t had a single accident since the 80s. At the end of the day, one of Air Koryo’s primary goals is to serve their government, and they wouldn’t want their elite to be killed. Carrying passengers is a more or less a side business that generates hard currency. Two potential facts that support this theory are the surprising number of military/government airfields within the country, and the fact that flight times and equipment change almost at the last minute based on the government’s need (it’s happened to me.)

    I’m not naive, airframe fatigue is a concern with vintage aircraft. But the planes do fly, and no one has been injured in decades. And without being sarcastic, I’d point out that the pilots in command of these venerable machines might know a bit more about flying than their younger counterparts in other parts of the world (see the transcript from the Air France Rio/Paris flight, for an example.)

    I’m not saying the ban is “unfair” or “unjustified.” I’m also not into politics and I’m certainly not defending an ideology or system. However as someone who’s pretty passionate about the DPRK (North Korea) I cringe at the amount of blatantly incorrect or sensationalistic reporting that’s done about the country. While humorous, your post somewhat falls into this trap and many readers may stop at the surface without necessary getting the broader picture.

  • bearbrick at 8:45am January 22, 2013

    EERrrrrrrr….. Didn’t realize flyertalk is allowing its hallowed space to be partaking in western propaganda . … Along with ” western made” modern aircraft . … …. Has the west become THAT threatened ?

  • willywuua at 11:55am January 22, 2013

    I really don’t like the tone of the article. Not really amusing to me.

  • s4popo at 1:35pm January 22, 2013

    This article was written by an amateur.

  • oscietra at 3:01pm January 22, 2013

    Agree with willywuua – the article is meant to be humorous, but doesn’t really fly with me and ends up being borderline racist.

    There’s plenty wrong with Communism and the suffering of the people of North Korea is horrific. How about focussing on that reality, the malnourishment, deep poverty, oppression and gulags rather than this facile point-scoring article.

    Its author, Gerry Wingenbach, should get out more, and perhaps go on one of the escorted tours of North Korea before penning such a distasteful diatribe.

    This sort of writing not what Flyertalk should be about.

  • rathin100 at 3:13pm January 22, 2013

    This s unprofessional nonsense. Lowers my view of flyer talks
    editorial judgement c minus on this one!

  • payam81 at 3:41am January 24, 2013

    Meh… My comment was deleted I guess I was too critical or was the one straw that finally broke the poor camel’s back after the avalanche of criticism. 🙂

  • mountainpost at 7:21am January 24, 2013

    I think to call someone a racist is a really, really serious accusation. I think you don’t know that person based on one bad story he wrote and he is not proud of. He is someone who has spent a lot of time in the third world, he doesn’t need to get out more, he needs to stay home and write better. He’s been to more than 80 countries and lived on three continents. Re. the tour of North Korea suggestion, he knows some NGOs think we should not support that government in any way. But he doesn’t know what to think on that issue. And writing about the sad, sad life of North Koreans was not his assignment. He is someone who has never flown first class, unlike one of you who proudly boasts they never fly economy, with us unwashed masses. You have mentally gang raped his character and then proudly added a smiley face. I think people should be judged on their entire body of work, not on one bad joke that flopped. Not on one really bad story on a really bad day for that writer. I know if he could remove that page he would. It’s just so easy to use a screen name, get fueled up on hatred and meanness like schoolyard bullies and go at him. It’s better to build than to destroy. Better to love than hate. Better to forgive than spend your precious time trying to figure out if some despicable struggling writer should get a C- or a D. Why not just not read him? This week’s New Yorker is awesome. Or the novels of David Mitchell. I also know that any professional would tell that writer it’s better not to engage people who show nothing but hatred while content in their own superiority. You’ve written almost three times as many words of hatred than the bad story is long. But to call someone you know nothing about a racist is just too far over the top. Here’s what that writer wants to say: He is really sorry for that story. He suggests you start a thread and get just 20 flyer talk members to encourage him to never, ever write another word on the site and he’ll be gone. I see 28 likes (the fools!) and 7 hate messages. Is that an avalanche of criticism? He’s new to FT, he’s learning his way around, he wants to make friends, he wants to contribute and you bet he screws up. Imagine what he must think of this new community he belongs to. I happen to know that terrible day he wrote that terrible story was not the worst thing that happened to him that day. He thinks sometimes an attempt a humor can be a saving grace. He thinks it’s what separates people from roaches. But he hopes that reading that awful story was all that went wrong with you, so, all in all, he hopes you had a great day. He knows no hate. He’s traveled too many miles; seen too much sadness. You probably want to tear into him and me now, but I’m going to beg you please just lay off him for 24 hours. He’s deeply hurt by your criticism. Tomorrow, Jan 24, is the anniversary of the death of someone who was very special to him. He’ll take flowers to the grave, visit the memorial and do an activity he and the deceased used to do all the time. Just give him 24 hours of no meanness, please? Then go ahead and attack and hate him and run him out of flyer talk. Cause otherwise he’s going to bang out another story for the rate of minimum wage in, say, 1970, roughly 5 hours for $40.

    But what if we took the high road? What if comments after a blog were meant as a vehicle for FT members to contribute to the body of knowledge. Like a real intelligent discussion, like we actually went to good schools in college? Have you ever noticed that 99% of comments contribute nothing but negativity. And the hatred feeds on itself, just read the above. You’re using hatred to show how terrible he is. Do you see the illogicality of that? We’re all victims of our education. We’re all in this together. We could be so much better than we are. And when someone really, really screws up like he did, maybe we could contact him privately and help him grow. Or we could mentally gang rape. Wait please. Now he says just 10 real names, 10 real names of people who think he’s a mindless, racist simpleton unworthy of your graciousness and he’s gone. But please, please, just give him 24 hours to face the sadness, memory and joys of his lost friend