Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe almost doubled his total pay packet last year before his base salary was frozen in July.

Mr Fyfe saw his package increase by 93 per cent from $1.61 million to $3.1 million in the company's 2008 financial year as strong profits in 2007 lifted his long-term incentive bonus. But recruitment specialists say Fyfe is likely to see a pay drop next year in the wake of a drop in company profits, and he won't be alone.

"There will be a number of chief executives that get no increase," said practice manager Jarrod Moyle of Sheffield Reward consultants.

"There has been a lot of media coverage around executive pay and a number of corporates who have announced executive pay freezes."

The Government and Air New Zealand were two of the most visible examples he said. Moyle believed executives were more likely to be hit by pay freezes than the workforce overall.

"I don't believe it will be followed at a blanket level. But executives, they can go a year without a salary increase and can afford to survive whereas for ordinary New Zealanders it can mean they slip down the standard of living."

Not many average New Zealanders could afford a 59 per cent cut to their pay - but that's just what Guinness Peat Group executive director Tony Gibbs took last year when his total package dropped from $6.9 million to $2.82 million.

Gibbs took the biggest hit in the Business Herald's investigation of top companies' executive pay while fishing company Sanford's chief executive had a 231 per cent increase to $1.56 million after a one-off superannuation scheme contribution.

Telecom, New Zealand's biggest listed company, had the highest paid executive with new boss Paul Reynolds on $4.79 million.

There are now a record 26 executives who earn over $1 million a year - up from 16 last year.

The average top New Zealand executive now earns $1.29 million - 29 times the median income of full-time salary and wage earners of $44,200.