Overexpression of Z α1-antitrypsin is known to induce polymer formation, prime the cells for endoplasmic reticulum stress and initiate nuclear factor kappa B (NF-κB) signalling. However, whether endogenous expression in primary bronchial epithelial cells has similar consequences remains unclear. Moreover, the mechanism of NF-κB activation has not yet been elucidated. Here, we report excessive NF-κB signalling in resting primary bronchial epithelial cells from ZZ patients compared with wild-type (MM) controls, and this appears to be mediated by mitogen-activated protein/extracellular signal-regulated kinase, EGF receptor and ADAM17 activity. Moreover, we show that rather than being a response to protein polymers, NF-κB signalling in airway-derived cells represents a loss of anti-inflammatory signalling by M α1-antitrypsin. Treatment of ZZ primary bronchial epithelial cells with purified plasma M α1-antitrypsin attenuates this inflammatory response, opening up new therapeutic options to modulate airway inflammation in the lung.