Tighter rules on drone use are being demanded by Air New Zealand after one came within just 16ft of an aircraft, narrowly avoiding a “serious incident”.

The pilots on the flight from Tokyo spotted the drone as they were coming in to land at Auckland airport on Sunday.

The drone came so close that the crew initially feared it would get sucked into the engine, the airline said.

The Boeing 777-200 and its 278 passengers were unharmed.

It was immediately not clear who was controlling the drone.

“NZ92 was just metres away from a serious incident on Sunday,” said ANZ chief operations integrity and standards officer Captain David Morgan in a statement.

“The pilots spotted the drone at a point in the descent where it was not possible to take evasive action.

“It passed so close to the incoming aircraft that they were concerned it may have been ingested into the engine.”

He added:  “It’s clear the time has now come for tougher deterrents for reckless drone use around airports to safeguard travellers, including imposing prison terms in the case of life-threating incidents.”

The incident is the second example of reckless drone use potentially endangering passenger safety this month, the airline said.

Flight operations at Auckland airport halted for 30 minutes on March 6 when an Air New Zealand pilot reported a drone within controlled airspace.