Photo by Yoshimai via flickr

I walk down the air bridge practically naked. My iPhone and laptop are packed away, my latest issue of The New Yorker is sitting at home with the mail.

In my civilian life, I won’t go to the grocery store without bringing an emergency supply of podcasts for the 15-minute trip.

But for this nine-hour journey from Montreal to Frankfurt, via Amsterdam, I decide to put my media and entertainment destiny entirely in the hands of KLM Royal Dutch Airways.

Customization vs. Curation

Both in flight and on the ground, most new technology falls into one of two categories: curated or customizable. On one hand, on-demand entertainment (think TiVo), à la carte purchasing (think iTunes) and personalized aggregation (think RSS) have put content consumers in control of their media diets.

At the same time, there’s still a hunger for professionally and thoughtfully curated material. The magazine, the TV series and even the venerable album may be going digital, but they’re not going away.

We’re seeing this tug-of-war play out in the airline world as well. While British Airways, for example, continues to stack its seatback system with new content and features, Southwest Airlines is set on helping passengers connect to the Internet using their own laptops, tablets and mobile phones.

At home, I’m a media control freak. I get my news from a hodgepodge of hand-picked feeds. I stream the TV shows I want, when I want (so while everyone is talking about Treme, I’m just getting into The Wire, two years after the finale).

But when I’m in the travel headspace, I prefer a more select menu. I want to see that movie I missed in theatres or immerse myself in a long, juicy read. And I don’t want to think too hard about it either. On this flight, I want KLM to do the work for me.

The Magazine Experience

Like many of my fellow passengers seated in economy, I begin my trip by reaching for the inflight magazine. The June issue of the Holland Herald is rather vaguely called “The Together Issue” and features a hand-drawn flock of flamingos on the cover.

Despite its newspaper-y name and so-so art direction, the Herald is a rich and engaging read. I enjoy a history-laden feature on Hangzhou’s enormous bike-sharing program (the first in China), a narrative story by French author Dominique Lapierre about driving a Rolls-Royce across India in the 1970s, and a shorter piece about an IKEA-made flat-pack home in Sweden.

Equally varied are the Herald’s advertisers. In addition to the usual suspects (Armani, IWC watches), I flip through ads for Bose headphones, select-service hotel chain Radisson Blu, a Dutch beach-tour company and the city of Free State, South Africa.

It’s nice to see an airline acknowledge that not every passenger is looking for ­– or can afford – a luxury car or designer perfume.

The Interactive Experience

After wearing out my eyes, I plug in my headphones and prepare to be entertained. KLM’s inflight system consists of a relatively small seatback screen and a hand-held controller that looks like it was designed by the makers of Super Nintendo. The controls are awkward and stiff and the response time is frustratingly slow.

But KLM offers a good deal of eclectic – if oddly categorized – content (who knew Mars Attacks was a “classic drama”?) The world movie section features dozens of Arabic, Dutch, Italian and Japanese films. My musical options range from Beyonce to Itzhak Perlman, and the audio book library includes titles by Michael J. Fox, Cormac McCarthy and Jules Verne.

I watch an episode of the new Jason Schwartzman comedy, appropriately titled Bored to Death, followed by the Coen brothers’ stark and stunning A Serious Man, which had been on my radar for a while.

I then indulge in a game of Tetris which, I’m delighted to learn, is an extremely faithful remake of the original Nintendo version. That explains the retro handset.

Back to Earth

After a stillborn nap, I decide to cozy up with the most innocuous movie I can find: Steve Carrell and Tina Fey’s Date Night. The system warns me that the film is longer than our remaining flight time, and I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment. That’s when I realize KLM has done a pretty good job.

Given the wealth of Dutch design talent, it’s time for the Netherlands’ national airline to recruit some first-class graphic artists to dress up its magazine and interaction designers to bring its GUI into the touch-screen era. But when it comes to providing diverse, relevant and compelling content, KLM is on top of its game.

With only 30 minutes to make my connection in Schiphol I hightail it to the gate, spurred on by the pep talk I received from the KLM check-in staff at YUL. As I step onto the Cityhopper to Frankfurt, I see that the seats on this smaller plane are screen-free. And for the first time all day, I miss my iPhone and the freedom that comes with it.