Inflammatory airway diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) exhibit stereotyped traits that are variably expressed in each person. In experimental mouse models of chronic lung disease, these individual disease traits can be genetically segregated and thereby linked to distinct determinants. Functional genomic analysis indicates that at least one of these traits, mucous cell metaplasia, depends on members of the calcium-activated chloride channel (CLCA) gene family. Here we review advances in the biochemistry of the CLCA family and the evidence of a role for CLCA family members in the development of mucous cell metaplasia and possibly airway hyperreactivity in experimental models and in humans. On the basis of this information, we develop the model that CLCA proteins are not integral membrane proteins with ion channel function but instead are secreted signaling molecules that specifically regulate airway target cells in healthy and disease conditions.