The rate of extubation failure (reintubation rate) was determined for 700 consecutive extubations in surgical patients admitted to one of two ICUs. Patients were weaned in a standardized fashion and extubated using a standardized gas exchange and mechanics criteria. Of 400 extubations in the general surgical ICU, there were 22 reintubations in 20 patients. Average age was 65 yr, and the major reason for reintubation was need for positive-pressure ventilation. Morbidity (pulmonary edema and/or pneumonia) was 36%, and the inhospital mortality was 40% in this group. The major cause of death was progressive cardiopulmonary failure. There were 10 failures in eight patients, of 300 extubations in the Burn/Trauma unit, where the mean age was 44 yr. Five failures occurred in patients with smoke inhalation and burns, a 13% incidence in this population. The reason for reintubation was airway maintenance and pulmonary toilet. Four failures occurred in head injury patients, a 5% incidence with the major reason for reintubation being airway protection. Morbidity was 60% (new pulmonary infiltrates), while mortality rate was only 10% in this group. Only one failure was noted in a nonhead-injured trauma patient. In no group studied were any predictors of extubation failure detected. We conclude that the incidence, reasons for, and outcome of reintubations in surgical ICU patients varies dramatically depending on the underlying disease process. Overall failure rate was 4%.