The need for tracheal intubation in the emergency department is often unpredictable and precipitous in nature. When compared with the operating room, a higher incidence of difficult intubation is observed. There are currently no accepted guidelines with respect to the stocking of difficult airway equipment in the emergency department. We have conducted a telephone survey to determine the availability of equipment for the management of the difficult airway in English emergency departments. Overall, the majority of units held a curved laryngoscope blade (100%), gum elastic bougie (99%) and surgical airway device (98%). Of alternative devices for ventilation, a laryngeal mask airway was kept by 65% of departments, a needle cricothyroidostomy kit by 63% and an oesophageal-tracheal twin-lumen airway (Combitube) by 18%. Of alternative devices for intubation, fewer than 10% held a retrograde intubating kit, intubating laryngeal mask, bronchoscope or lighted stylet. Seventy-four per cent of departments held an end-tidal carbon dioxide detector.