Abstract Background The respiratory tract epithelium is a critical environmental interface that regulates inflammation. In chronic infectious airway diseases, pathogens may permanently colonize normally sterile luminal environments. Host-pathogen interactions determine the intensity of inflammation and thus, rates of tissue injury. Although many cells become refractory to stimulation by pathogen products, it is unknown whether the airway epithelium becomes either tolerant or hypersensitive in the setting of chronic infection. Our goals were to characterize the response of well-differentiated primary human tracheobronchial epithelial cells to Pseudomonas aeruginosa, to understand whether repeated exposure induced tolerance and, if so, to explore the mechanism(s). Methods The apical surface of well-differentiated primary human tracheobronchial epithelial cell cultures was repetitively challenged with Pseudomonas aeruginosa culture filtrates or the bacterial media control. Toxicity, cytokine production, signal transduction events and specific effects of dominant negative forms of signaling molecules were examined. Additional experiments included using IL-1β and TNFα as challenge agents, and performing comparative studies with a novel airway epithelial cell line. Results An initial challenge of the apical surface of polarized human airway epithelial cells with Pseudomonas aeruginosa culture filtrates induced phosphorylation of IRAK1, JNK, p38, and ERK, caused degradation of IκBα, generation of NF-κB and AP-1 transcription factor activity, and resulted in IL-8 secretion, consistent with activation of the Toll-like receptor signal transduction pathway. These responses were strongly attenuated following a second Pseudomonas aeruginosa, or IL-1β, but not TNFα, challenge. Tolerance was associated with decreased IRAK1 protein content and kinase activity and dominant negative IRAK1 inhibited Pseudomonas aeruginosa -stimulated NF-κB transcriptional activity. Conclusion The airway epithelial cell response to Pseudomonas aeruginosa entails adaptation and tolerance likely mediated, in part, by down-regulation of IRAK1.