An abnormal immune response to environmental agents is generally thought to be responsible for causing chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Based on studies of experimental models and human subjects, there is increasing evidence that the response of the innate immune system is crucial for the development of this type of airway disease. Airway epithelial cells and innate immune cells represent key components of the pathogenesis of chronic airway disease and are emerging targets for new therapies. In this Review, we summarize the innate immune mechanisms by which airway epithelial cells and innate immune cells regulate the development of chronic respiratory diseases. We also explain how these pathways are being targeted in the clinic to treat patients with these diseases.