Gas breakdown, or the ionization of the air in the path of a high power laser, is a limit on the maximum intensity which can be propagated through the atmosphere. When the threshold for breakdown is exceeded, a high density, high temperature plasma is produced which is opaque to visible and infrared wavelengths and thus absorbs the laser radiation. The threshold in the atmosphere is significantly lower than in pure gases because of laser interaction and vaporization of aerosols. This aspect of air breakdown is discussed in detail. Parametric studies have revealed the scaling laws of breakdown as to wavelength, laser pulse duration and these will be discussed and compared with existing models. A problem closely related to breakdown is the plasma production when a high intensity laser interacts with a surface. In this case, the plasma can be beneficial for coupling laser energy into shiny surfaces. The plasma absorbs the laser radiation and reradiates the energy at shorter wavelengths; this shorter wavelength radiation is absorbed by the surface thus increasing the coupling of energy into the surface. The conditions for the enhancement of laser coupling into surfaces will be discussed, particularly for cw laser beams, an area of recent experimental investigation.