In the majority of patients with oesophageal carcinoma, curative treatment proves to be impossible when diagnosis was established; therefore, most of the patients are candidates for palliative chemotherapy. The aim of this phase II study was to evaluate the efficacy and safety of 5-fluorouracil/folinic acid (AIO regimen) plus irinotecan in patients with locally advanced or metastatic carcinoma of the oesophagus. The methods used a prospective phase II trial, start: November 2002; patients: n=25; chemotherapy: irinotecan (80 mg/m2) as a 1-h infusion and 5-fluorouracil (2000 mg/m2) with sodium folinic acid (500 mg/m2) as a 24-h infusion on days 1, 8, 15, 22, 29 and 36, repeated on day 57. Last date of evaluation: 28 February 2007; n=24; adenocarcinoma: n=13, squamous cell carcinoma (SCC): n=11; UICC III/IV: 3/21; grading G1/G2/G3/G4: 0/8/12/4; median age: 58 years (range 44–75); men/women: 19/5; Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group index 0/1/2: 3/17/4; applications: 460. Higher-grade toxicity: grade 3 diarrhoea: n=2, grade 4 diarrhoea: n=1, grade 4 vomiting: n=1, grade 4 nausea: n=1, grade 3 fatigue: n=1, grade 3 hyponatraemia: n=2, grade 4 elevation of creatinine: n=1, thrombosis of the vena subclavia: n=1, ischaemic lesion of the brain stem: n=1. Three patients died after two chemotherapeutic applications because of high tumour burden. Evaluable for response: n=19. Partial response: n=8 (33%), stable disease: n=9 (38%), progressive disease: n=2 (8%), not evaluable: n=5 (21%). Time-to-progression: 6.6 months (range 1.6–24.6). Total median survival: 13.6 months (median survival of adenocarcinoma: 20.3 months, median survival of SCC: 10.0 months). Secondary resection (R0): n=3. In oesophageal carcinomas, the AIO regimen plus irinotecan is excellently manageable as an outpatient treatment and shows efficacy in adenocarcinomas and SCCs of the oesophagus.