Introduction Population-based epidemiological evidence suggests that exposure to ambient air pollutants increases hospitalisations and mortality from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but less is known about the impact of exposure to air pollutants on patient-reported outcomes, morbidity and progression of COPD. Methods and analysis The Subpopulations and Intermediate Outcome Measures in COPD (SPIROMICS) Air Pollution Study (SPIROMICS AIR) was initiated in 2013 to investigate the relation between individual-level estimates of short-term and long-term air pollution exposures, day-to-day symptom variability and disease progression in individuals with COPD. SPIROMICS AIR builds on a multicentre study of smokers with COPD, supplementing it with state-of-the-art air pollution exposure assessments of fine particulate matter, oxides of nitrogen, ozone, sulfur dioxide and black carbon. In the parent study, approximately 3000 smokers with and without airflow obstruction are being followed for up to 3 years for the identification of intermediate biomarkers which predict disease progression. Subcohorts undergo daily symptom monitoring using comprehensive daily diaries. The air monitoring and modelling methods employed in SPIROMICS AIR will provide estimates of individual exposure that incorporate residence-specific infiltration characteristics and participant-specific time-activity patterns. The overarching study aim is to understand the health effects of short-term and long-term exposures to air pollution on COPD morbidity, including exacerbation risk, patient-reported outcomes and disease progression. Ethics and dissemination The institutional review boards of all the participating institutions approved the study protocols. The results of the trial will be presented at national and international meetings and published in peer-reviewed journals.