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North Korea's Airline, Named Worst in the World, Aims Higher

North Korea pivots from the class struggle to the struggle for a better business class

Air Koryo, the worst airline in the world – at any rate by Skytrax’s estimation, which lists North Korea's main carrier as the only airline to merit one star in its five-star rating system – has ambitions to improve, according to a report by Bloomberg News: “New planes, new in-flight entertainment options, smart new uniforms for the cabin attendants, even business class. It's all part of supreme leader Kim Jong Un's effort to boost tourist numbers 20-fold to 2 million by 2020 and supplement the nation's meager foreign exchange.”

As is often the case in North Korea, the whims of the current Kim family dictator matter a great deal, and could be a factor driving the reported overhaul. The Telegraph quoted one airline industry watcher’s speculation: “The nation's leader is known to be very interested in flying – there are photos on file of him in cockpits – and he might make more use of Air Koryo to make state visits.” Meanwhile his late father, Kim Jong-il, is said to have been afraid of flying, which might help explain Air Koryo’s evident reek of neglect.

Not surprisingly for a country untouched by genuine modern consumerism, aspects of the Air Koryo experience have been described as laughably bad, from an inescapable mystery meat burger to even more inescapable propaganda-pop videos played at ear-splitting volume. Assuming the Hermit Kingdom is serious about gearing up to a slicker service, now is the time to laugh at them. As The Telegraph’s correspondent described 2002 flight: “It would have been generous to describe the explanation of the emergency procedures as perfunctory, the fizzy drink that was served was difficult to identify and the engine noise from the elderly Soviet aircraft was uncomfortably loud.”

Or, in the case of its safety record and ageing fleet of Russian planes, perhaps Air Koryo is not so funny: The European Union banned it from 2006 to 2010, meaning it’s probably the only flag carrier ever to be barred from European skies.

It will be up to passengers from richer countries (meaning almost all of them) to report to everyone else on whether the improvements are actually taking hold. Honest feedback from North Koreans themselves won’t play too much of a role in improving Air Koryo’s service. As the old joke goes about small talk under the Kim family’s rule:

Q: How are things going?
A: Oh, you know. Can’t complain.

Published Monday, March 7th 2016

Header image credit: "And now to go over the safety features of this aircraft, which the Dear Leader himself designed …" David Guttenfelder/AP Photo

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