Death certificates from the French national mortality database for the calendar year 1999 were reviewed to analyse cases in which airway complications had contributed to peri-operative death. Respiratory deaths (and comas) found in a previous national 1978-82 French survey (1:7960; 95% CI 1:12,700 to 1:5400) were compared with the death rate found in the present one: 1:48,200 (95% CI 1:140,000 to 1:27,500). In 1999, deaths associated with failure of the breathing circuit and equipment were no longer encountered and no death was found to be related to undetected hypoxia in the recovery unit. Deaths related to difficult intubation also occurred at a lower rate than in the previous report (1:46,000; 95% CI 1:386,000 to 1:13,000) in 1978-82 vs 1:176,000 (95% CI 1:714,000 to 1:46,000) in 1999, a fourfold reduction. In most cases, there were both inadequate practice and systems failure (inappropriate communication between staff, inadequate supervision, poor organisation). This large French survey shows that deaths associated with respiratory complications during anaesthesia have been strikingly reduced during this 15-year period.