The alternative pathway of mitochondrial electron transport, which terminates in the alternative oxidase (AOX), uncouples oxidation of substrate from mitochondrial ATP production, yet plant performance is improved under adverse growth conditions. AOX is regulated at different levels. Identification of regulatory transcription factors shows that Arabidopsis thaliana AOX1a is under strong transcriptional suppression. At the protein level, the primary structure is not optimised for activity. Maximal activity requires the presence of various metabolites, such as tricarboxylic acid-cycle intermediates that act in an isoform-specific manner. In this opinion article we propose that the regulatory mechanisms that keep AOX activity suppressed, at both the gene and protein level, are positive for plant performance due to the flexible short- and long-term fine-tuning.