Three contracting firms were indicted by a federal grand jury yesterday and charged with a bid rigging conspiracy over a 1978 construction project at Byrd International Airport in Richmond.

The felony charges, handed down by a Richmond grand jury, allege that the three firms submitted "collusive, noncompetitive and rigged bids" for the runway construction project.

The three companies named in the indictment are Ashland-Warren Inc. of Atlanta; Rea Construction Co. of Charlotte, N.C.; and Central Contracting Co. Inc. of Farmville, Va.

The indictment says that on March 3, 1978, the Capital Region Airport Commission, the public panel that operates Byrd Airport solicited sealed bids from contractors for the building and reconstruction of runways and taxiways at the Richmond facility.

Ninety percent of the cost of the project was funded by federal money. The project required the contractors to submit sealed bids for labor, equipment and materials.

The indictment charged that the contrctors discussed the bid submission and subsequently gave the airport authority intentionally high, complementary bids.

The contractors provided the commission with "false, fictitious and fraudulent information" in connection with those bids, the indictment said.

Byrd Airport, located on the outskirts of the city, is a growing operation, and in 1978, about 1.2 million passengers, 6.7 million pounds of mail and 12.8 pounds of cargo moved through its facilities.

Under Virginia law, the airport commission was required to announce and advertise the bid and award the project to the lowest responsible bidder.

The bidders were required to supply a variety of materials including cement, cable, lights, electrical equipment and other building materials in connection with the project. The expansion project was eventually completed the indictment said.

Although the indictment claims individual officials of the companies participated in the alleged bid rigging, none of those officials are named.

The case was brought by the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, in conjunction with the Richmond-based U.S. Attorney Justin Williams.

The Sherman Act sets a maximum penalty of $1 million for felony violations of this kind.