A flight from Auckland to Tonga was turned back because runway lights went out at the island nation's airport.

The Air New Zealand Airbus A320 departed just after 5pm yesterday and was en-route to Fua'amotu International Airport when the crew was told the runway lighting was not operating.

The flight, with 117 passengers on board, was diverted to Fiji's Nadi International Airport for refuelling and then returned to Auckland, landing about 1.10am this morning, a spokeswoman said.

Air New Zealand is operating an additional return service between Auckland and Tonga today during daylight hours in order to accommodate impacted customers, she said.

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''We apologise to customers for the inconvenience experienced.''

Efforts to contact Tonga Airport were unscucessful this afternoon but it is undergoing a $37 million rebuild as part of a World Bank programme to improve airport safety in the Pacific.

Spanish aeronautical, telecommunications, infrastructure, and transportation company GECI won the contract to install equipment at the airport including airfield lighting. It is understood the lights have just recently been commissioned.

The airport, about 35 km from the capital of Tonga, Nukuʻalofa, was initially built as bomber base during the Second World War.

Earlier this year Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia suspended their services for a time to another Pacific nation, Vanuatu, because of safety concerns about the runway surface.