So you wanted cheaper air fares.

Well, they may be cheaper, but there sure are a lot of them. And if you think you're confused, you should talk to some of the ticket agents working for the airlines.

This entire Sunday newspaper does not contain enough space to print the complete list of available air fares. In fact, the airline fare tariff schedule, which does list all available fares, is now a seven-volume publication.

Let's take a relatively simple yet often travelled route such as Washington, D.C., to New York. The unsuspecting traveller might assume that there two or three airlines serve that route, offering a couple different fares, like a night fare, book-in-advance-and-stay-for-7-to-30-days fare, and even a first class fare.

Wrong.

Twelve airlines fly between New York and the Washington area (including Baltimore's airport, which is about as close as Dulles to downtown Washington), and they offer 21 different round-trip fares, ranging from about $40 to just over $120.

You can fly on weekend excursions, long weekend excursions, 30-day maximum flights, 7-day to 45-day flights, same-day return flights, and on and on. In some cases, you will have to buy your tickets 30 days in advance, and in other cases buy them after you're on the plane. You even can take a shuttle - just show up at the gate on almost any given hour, and you are guaranteed a seat, even if it means they have to take out a whole new plane just to carry you.

And the picture is not getting any less confusing. When Delta inaugurated its new Atlanta-to-London route this month, it offered 18 different fares for just that one route.

The confusion is an outgrowth of a significant movement toward airline price deregulations. While Congress is working on a bill that would allow much greater freedom for airlines to offer lower fares than ever, the airlines and the Civil Aeronautics Board have read the handwriting on the wall and have begun to make the changes themselves.

The problem, according to CAB officials, is that the airlines still have to hold on to their basic fares under present rules, and all discounts must have special provisions. Only last month did one airline, Western, actually petition the board for an exemption that would allow the airline to drop its regular coach fare on one line. Western brought its couch fare from Los Angeles to Miami down from more than $200 to $106. Then National Airlines, which flies the same route, matched the Western fare with its own.

But most of the discount fares are based on length of stay or on early purchase of tickets, or late-night flights - generally designed to help the airline fill seats at down time or know that a certain number of seats on a given plane already have been brought and paid for.

"In the long run, say in about six months or a year these things will sort themselves out and we will have a fairly simple fare structure," says CAB official Michael Levine.

He points to Continental Airlines, which just concelled all of its promotional fares in favor of the "Chicken-feed" fare, which is actually a new third class fare, as a "significant step."

"Chickenfeed" is a systemwide, unrestricted fare, which puts the passenger in a special area designated in the back of the coach section. On Continental's DC-10s, the designated area will include up to 100 seats, but the line's 727s will allow up to 46 "chickenfeeders." Although the seats are the same as coach seats, there is no meal and the section is likely to be much more crowded. Also the amount of discount off the usual coach fare depends on what time of the week you are travelling. During higher-density times such as Friday, Saturday or Sunday, for instance, the discount is only 30 percent, while it jumps to 40 percent between Monday and Thursday because it is harder to fill a plane at coach prices during those days.

"But that's all right," says Levine, a strong proponent of deregulation. "At least it's in response to consumer demand." On some Continental routes, where ridership has been down, the discounts jump to 50 percent.

Levine offers three tips to the consumer attempting to travel at the best price possible.

"First," he says, "be persistent. Ask the airline ticketing agents if they have a lower fare than the one they quoted you. Second, understand airline people aren't trying to mislead you; many of them just don't know all of the available deals. So after you ask for the lowest possible fare, call back and ask another agent. Personnel vary in their abilities. Finally, call the airline you think least likely to be travelling the route you're taking. If they do have a plane going your way, they are probably offering some of the lowest fares because no one knows they fly there and they are trying to attract business."

The airlines are watching all this confusion with a great deal of interest. They are taking their first steps into the chill waters of a competitive marketing situation. Sometimes they keep walking in, and sometimes they pull their feet out because it's too cold.

Eastern Airlines was the first to offer a special $55 fares between New York and Miami. But it just has decided to withdraw the fare because it wasn't generating enough traffic to justify the reduction.

"That just shows that the system is working," says Mary Schuman, a White House aide working on getting the airline deregulation bill through Congress. "It means that there is a real supply-and-demand relationship and the consumer will get the best price because the airlines are finding out how far they can go."

"Eastern learned an interesting lesson," said the CAB's Levine. "They learned that New Yorkers have a habit of making three or four reservations and not bothering to cancel them.

That's just not true in some other markets." Because Eastern only allocated a limited number of seats on every plane at $55 fare, when a reservation didn't show up, it was stuck with the seat - and no passenger.

But Trans World Airlines had better luck on a discount fare between Chicago and Los Angeles. Offerings several wide-bodied plane flights a day on that route, TWA was losing a bundle, according to CAB sources. So the airline switched to older, but refurbished 707s with charter configurations on the inside - meaning more seats squeezed in the same space - and dropped fares from $160 to $99.

"Load factors (the percentage of occupied seats) went from about 30 percent to between 70 and 80 percent," said a CAB source. "And now it looks like they are making money."

Eastern also has been quite successful with its special unlimited mileage fare. For between $303 and $323, you can go anywhere Eastern flies for a maximum of 21 days and minimum of 7 days. The deal is particularly attractive when you consider that Eastern flies to the Caribbean and Los Angeles, as well as most major eastern points.

"There's been a lot of demand," says Chuck Bradley, manager of Eastern's ticket office in Washington. There's no question it's a success."

Most airlines put their reservations and ticketing agents through a two-week or three-week training course at their home office, including a summary of the fare situation. But in order to keep up, they said they constantly are holding seminars with updated fare information.

"We have a weekly lecture update," says Pam Gondola, an account service representative for American Airlines. "And we tell our agents to offer the best fare. But it is next to impossible to give every excursion fare; there are too many."

Eastern's Bradley says he has one training agent doing nothing but keeping up with changing fares. "Our agents are supposed to tell you what fares apply, and they do the best job they can. But the average call has gone from 30 seconds to about 360 seconds in the past few months. We're handling more business, but it takes us even more time to get it."

Three airlines fly nonstop from Wahington to Los Angeles, offering eight diferent fares. In a random sampling, calls were made to reservations numbers of all three - United, TWA and American.

They were told that the customer wanted to leave a week from Thursday in the morning, and return the following Thursday, but that the return was subject to change and could be somewhat flexible. Then, they were asked what the fare would be.

Both United and American quoted the lowest available fare first. It was a fairly new excursion that costs $331 round trip (compared with the regular coach fare of $414) and must be paid for at least seven days before the day of the flight, and no more than 10 days after the day reservation is made. As for restrictions, there were three major ones: First, the traveller had to stay in Los Angeles until the first Sunday after arriving, which in this case would mean staying three days. Second, if the passenger wanted to change the return flight, the change had to be made seven days in advance, which would be on the day of arrival. Third, the passenger could not stay more than 30 days.

Both airlines said that the fare would be slightly lower if the passenger shifted to night flights.

United also said that, if the return flight had to be changed without the seven-day warning, the entire fare would revert back to the regular coach fare. American, however, said that there was a way around that restriction. "What you should do," the agent said, "is let the ticket lapse, then merely travel standby and you will get on the first available plane at the same price."

The TWA agent was by far the most entertaining. He started out quoting the cheapest fare, even though it didn't apply. It was a different excursion that had to be booked 30 days in advance. After spending about ten minutes explaining its restrictions, he said, "But of course, you can't qualify for that one because we only have week."

Then he described the same excursion that United and American offer. At the end of that 10-minute discussion, he said the new fare situation was driving him crazy. "We've got something for everybody, including a jar of aspirin here for me. And a jar of Anacin, and Alka Seltzer, and several other things - like a Black Russian, but that's for my lunch," he said. "I leave for lunch withered, and come back happy. I think I sell a lot more tickets when I'm happy, but I don't know where they're going."