In the present study, our aim was to investigate whether the variability of conductance over the course of inspiration reflects flow limitation. Pressure/flow conditions in the upper airway were modelled by a collapsible tube within a rigid chamber and a pump simulating respiration. Instantaneous conductance was estimated every 20 ms as flow/resistive pressure, and its variability during inspiration expressed as the 90th/50th percentile ratio. Accuracy of this ratio to quantify flow limitation was evaluated by observing whether it changed predictably with adjustments of model parameters. To illustrate the potential of this ratio to quantify flow limitation in a clinical setting, we recorded pneumotachographic airflow and oesophageal pressure in 11 patients with obstructive sleep apnoea during nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) ventilation, and observed changes in the 90th/50th percentile ratio of inspiratory lung conductance induced by mask pressure titration. Rising pressure surrounding the collapsible tube from subatmospheric to positive values induced progressive inspiratory collapse and increased 90th/50th percentile ratios of inspiratory conductance as predicted. Changes in flow limitation induced by other model modifications were also correctly tracked by the 90th/50th conductance percentile ratio. Increasing mask pressure during CPAP ventilation in sleep apnoea patients from subtherapeutic to therapeutic pressure levels was associated with the expected decrease in the 90th/50th percentile ratio of inspiratory lung conductance from a mean of 6.5±3.1 to 1.6±0.3 ( P <0.001). We conclude that variability of inspiratory conductance quantified by the 90th/50th percentile ratio may serve as a measure of flow limitation that is independent of the absolute value of conductance.