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China to restrict North Korea's Air Koryo after emergency landing

Air Koryo plane Image copyright AFP
Image caption North Korea's Air Koryo still flies many Soviet-era planes

Chinese authorities will limit the operations of North Korean airline Air Koryo, after a Beijing-bound flight made an emergency landing last month.

The flight from Pyongyang had to land in the North-eastern Chinese city of Shenyang because of smoke in the cabin. No one was injured in the incident.

China's Civil Aviation Administration announced "relevant measures to limit operations" without giving any details.

The state-owned airline was also told to improve training and maintenance.

Most of Air Koryo's international flights are to China, with a few scheduled flights to Russia.

"China has become a little bit more active recently in naming and shaming airlines that make mistakes," Greg Waldron of Flightglobal told the BBC. "And we've noticed a recent pick up in that."

"The North Korean airline would likely be a very resource-deprived airline, operating a number of older airplanes. And often, that older equipment is difficult to maintain. By international standards it would not be a great airline."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption If you want to visit Pyongyang, Air Koryo is your best bet to get there

The Chinese aviation regulator did not give any details on the measures it would impose but Mr Waldron thinks it's unlikely there would be a ban on flights or even a fine for the North Korean carrier.

"It's really hard to say exactly what they could do. Anything between North Korea and China is very difficult because it's always also political."

The world's 'one star' carrier?

Britain-based airline ratings website Skytrax lists the carrier as the world's only "one star" airline, though its rating does not measure safety standards.

Though by no means a tourist airline, Air Koryo is the main way that visitors to North Korea can enter the country.

Simon Cockerell of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, a leading independent tour agency focusing on North Korea, told the BBC that he doubts the new development would have an impact on tourism.

"Our guests are generally happy with the airline. They mostly fly at least one route with Air Koryo, some also take the train on the way in or out. They do some research and then aren't put off by that Skytrax ranking which has nothing at all to do with safety standards."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The plane force to make an emergency landing was a Tupolev 204

Air Koryo is North Korea's only airline and was established in 1950. The airline has only a small fleet, mostly consisting of Russian-built Tupolev and Ukrainian Antonov aircraft, for its international flights.

The service from Pyongyang to Beijing uses a Russian Tupolev Tu-204, a medium-range jet airliner that can carry about 140 passengers.

"The oldest planes they are using on international routes are from 2008," Mr Cockerell explains. "For their Antonov planes built in Ukraine for instance they have Ukrainian technicians doing the maintenance."

On domestic routes however, older Soviet-era aircraft are still used, some of which are so old that aviation enthusiasts can book specialised tours to experience flying in aircrafts dating back to the early days of the Cold War.

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