Airway management is primarily designed to avoid hypoxia, yet hypoxia remains the main ultimate cause of anaesthetic-related death and morbidity. Understanding some of the physiology of hypoxia is therefore essential as part of a ‘holistic’ approach to airway management. Furthermore, it is strategically important that national specialist societies dedicated to airway management do not only focus upon the technical aspects of airway management, but also embrace some of the relevant scientific questions. There has been a great deal of research into causation of hypoxia and the body’s natural protective mechanisms and responses to it. This enables us to think of ways in which we might manipulate the cellular and molecular responses to confer greater protection against hypoxia-induced tissue injury. This article reviews some of those aspects.