Direct laryngoscopic tracheal intubation is taught to many healthcare professionals as it is a potentially lifesaving procedure. However, it is a difficult skill to acquire and maintain, and, of concern, the consequences of poorly performed intubation attempts are potentially serious. The Airtraq(R) Laryngoscope is a novel intubation device which may possess advantages over conventional direct laryngoscopes for use by novice personnel. We conducted a prospective trial with 40 medical students who had no prior airway management experience. Following brief didactic instruction, each participant took turns in performing laryngoscopy and intubation using the Macintosh and Airtraq devices under direct supervision. Each student was allowed up to three attempts to intubate in three laryngoscopy scenarios using a Laerdal(R) Intubation Trainer and one scenario in a Laerdal(R) SimMan(R) Manikin. They then performed tracheal intubation of the normal airway a second time to characterise the learning curve for each device. The Airtraq provided superior intubating conditions, resulting in greater success of intubation, particularly in the difficult laryngoscopy scenarios. In both easy and simulated difficult laryngoscopy scenarios, the Airtraq decreased the duration of intubation attempts, reduced the number of optimisation manoeuvres required, and reduced the potential for dental trauma. The Airtraq device showed a rapid learning curve and the students found it significantly easier to use. The Airtraq appears to be a superior device for novice personnel to acquire the skills of tracheal intubation.