Isobel King flew round the world at the pointy end to road-test China Southern and Aerolineas Argentinas.
Having settled comfortably into our business-class surrounds, chablis in hand and menu sorted, a bewildering challenge awaited: how to adjust the seat. Or more importantly, how to look cool while desperately trying to decode 11 control buttons sporting a maze of arrows. My colleague beside me looked equally bamboozled, as footrests, backrests, neck rests, lumbar supports and even a pulsing massager all fought it out to deliver the ultimate drinking position.
It was a comical start to our whirlwind navigation of the globe, road-testing business class on two airlines: China Southern to Amsterdam, with a stopover in Guangzhou; and then Argentina's flag carrier, Aerolineas Argentinas, from Rome to Buenos Aires and back to Sydney. Rocketing through six countries in 10 days is a recipe for permanent jet lag, so seat comfort became the deal breaker; the difference between eight hours' straight sleep and half a day of interminable wriggling.
China Southern Airlines
With heavy marketing of the "Canton route" to Europe via its headquarters in Guangzhou (formerly Canton), China Southern - the country's biggest airline - is challenging the traditional "Kangaroo route", offering competitive fares, including return business-class flights from about $5500. At that price, the value for money is hard to argue with.
Both legs of our run to Europe were on an Airbus A330. There was plenty of room to move around the cabin and when we eventually mastered that control panel, the seats proved exceptionally comfortable, reclining back to an almost-flat position that ensured most of our contingent got a solid stretch of sleep on both flights.
The food hit the spot, except for a lukewarm pumpkin soup that had to go back for reheating. More memorable was a pungent beef noodle soup, with lashings of fresh chilli on the side, served as a snack. The menu is a mix of Western and Chinese, with a range of choices for entree and main, and best of all, you can lock your order in at the start of the flight and then decide when you want it served to you. No prodding or bright lights to signal it's mealtime.
The real disappointment came when I plugged in for a few hours of distraction on the small screen. Inflight entertainment comprises a handful of ageing blockbusters, some random Euro flicks and - predictably - a rich assortment of Chinese films. The airline has employed a number of foreign crew, including Dutch and Australians, to cater for a more international passenger list. A little more diversity on the entertainment front would be a smart addition.
Some language issues aside, the ever-smiling Chinese crew on our two flights were attentive to a tee, to the point I had to clamp hold of my glass of water to stop it being whisked away. In the end I gave up and simply asked for a big bottle of water that I wedged down beside me.
China Southern has a spanking new VIP lounge at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, with a dining area downstairs and massive lounging area upstairs; all chic and state of the art.
Its membership of the SkyTeam alliance (which links it with airlines such as KLM, Alitalia, Delta, Garuda and Air France) gives VIP passengers access to SkyPriority: basically a fast-track service, available at most airports, which whisks you past tedious queues - a godsend after a long flight.
Overall, the business-class experience on China Southern, for the money, gets a big tick.
Less impressive was my AA experience but, to be fair, even the airline's officials we met in Buenos Aires acknowledged there were problems they were chipping away at. The airline was nationalised in 2008, and the fleet is gradually being renewed and the notorious delays are apparently improving - though there was a lengthy one on our Auckland stop.
In a nutshell, the airline food was average, both the Airbus A340s we flew in were in desperate need of a refurb, the seats in business class didn't recline flat and the inflight entertainment was pure vintage - a total of four movies changed monthly, and you had to chance where in the plot you landed as they were on auto-run. Economy class still has communal overhead screens. One word of advice: iPad.
On the upside, service up the pointy end was excellent.
A big factor in its favour is that Aerolineas Argentinas introduced direct Sydney-Buenos Aires flights this month, abandoning its long-standing Auckland stop. The move follows Qantas's termination of direct flights to Buenos Aires in March, replacing it with flights via Santiago, in partnership with Chile's national carrier, LAN.
Locals I spoke to in Buenos Aires - from taxi drivers to guides and hotel staff - commented on the recent surge in Aussie tourists and they're sure not arriving by boat. Flying direct will always win over some; convenience over comfort.
Aerolineas Argentinas also officially joins the SkyTeam airline alliance on August 29, so passengers will be able to tap into the global network of airlines and VIP benefits.
So it's a matter of taking the good with the bad.
The writer flew around the globe courtesy of SkyTeam and Accor.
China Southern, a SkyTeam alliance member, flies twice daily to Guangzhou from Sydney, with return business-class fares from $3860. In Europe, it flies to Amsterdam, London and Paris. Sydney-Amsterdam return business-class fares from $5506.
Aerolineas Argentinas has three direct Sydney-Buenos Aires flights a week, with business-class return fares from $5702.