Dulles International Airport opened for business in 1962. Because of a typing error, yesterday's Washington Business section contained an incorrect date.

"Daddy, are we still in America?" 4-year-old Nina Callaway asked her father Michael, a Civil Aeronautics Board official, during a recent trip along the road to Dulles International Airport.

A question capsulizes one of Dulles' major problems -- its distance from the homes of so many metropolitan Washington travelers and from most of the places outsiders are bound for when they make trips to the nations's capital.

But its distance -- 26 miles from the White House -- compounded by a lack of quick, cheap and easy traveler access, is significantly less important than what many believe to be its major problem: Washington's National Airport.

Despite its ground and terminal congrestion and its somewhat down-at-the-heels condition, National remains the area's favorite airport for travelers and the airlines; three miles away from the White House, it's a similar distance from many of the federal departments, hotels and tourist attractions travelers to Washington are seeking. For the majority of residents, too, National is closer, easier and cheaper to get to than Dulles, and it has the flights.

While 15 million passengers pushed through National last year, barely 2.5 million roamed through Dulles' spacious terminal, and the difference is growing, federal officials say. Right now, there are more than 750 commercial jetliner and commuter flights a day at National, less than 90 a day at Dulles.

There's no question about the beauty of Dulles. After a drive along the 13 1/2-mile limited-access expressway through the still relatively quiet Virginia countryside, many visitors are still awed by the sight of the Eero Saarinen-designed terminal building. Its graceful arches and skyward-swept expanses of glass, along with the 193-foot-high airport traffic control tower and glass-enclosed cab with a 360-degree unobstructed view, rise majestically above the surrounding 10,000 mostly-green acres of airport grounds.

Inside, it's lovely too, and generally convenient from the passengers' point of view. In contrast to the seeming miles of concourses passengers have to traverse in most large airports, passengers at Dulles walk less than 200 feet from the entrances past the ticket counters to mobile lounges which take them for a three-minute ride, "protected from weather, noise and jet blast," to their plane, parked a half-mile from the terminal building.

The terminal, opened in late 1972, is really relatively small, despite the spaciousness and openness one feels. That feeling was enhanced recently when security-check stations were relocated from the center of the terminal to two single gate positions opening into new "passenger hold rooms." Until then, a visitor had to clear security to buy candy or a newspaper or go to the restaurant.

Aside from the physical ticket counters, airline logos and occasional announcements of flights, Dulles doesn't seem like a busy international airport during many hours of the day. "We look upon it as a soccer field inside," Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis said last week.

Sitting in the attractive, renovated restaurant, one faces a tranquil airfield where several times a day, a good 45 minutes can go by without the arrival or departure of a commercial flight. It's a far cry from the hurry-scurry of National, where a plane lands or takes off every minute.On occasion, there may be just one or two planes parked at the Dulles aircraft ramp -- no full planes waiting for gate space here.

Late in the afternoon, especially about 5 p.m., Dulles looks like a real airport. Planes are coming in and going out, passengers are lined up at the ticket counters, or seeking their baggage downstairs at the claim stations. In fact, ironically, there are almost too many passengers at the airport then; about 45 percent of all of Dulles' passengers come through between 4 and 7 p.m., twice the national average for airport operations. "Our peak is just awful," admits Dexter P. Davis, airport manager of Dulles.

Now the Transportation Department is making an attempt with a proposed metropolitan airports policy to make Dulles look like an airport more of the day. And it is doing so primarily by tackling National's popularity with the airlines and their passengers, and trying to force some of both to Dulles.

Similar to a Carter administration policy proposed last year, the Reagan administration's plan announced last week would limit the number of passengers who could use National in the future, cut down this fall on the number of airline flights permitted there and clamp a stricter curfew on its operations. In addition, sticter noise control rules to be imposed on National in 1986 would require virtually all existing aircraft being used there today to shift to Dulles or Baltimore/Washington International Airport.

Taking on the problem of ground transportation to Dulles, DOT is proposing to accelerate to 27 months construction time, starting this fall, on a 2 1/2-mile extension of the Dulles Access Road eastward to connect with Interstate 66, which will run to Rosslyn. Although estimated last week to save 15 to 25 minutes' driving time, Dulles planners originally said the road would cut travel time to downtown D.C. 12 to 15 minutes.

DOT also wants to provide free or reduced-rate bus travel to Dulles from downtown and other locations, possibly subsidizing buses through higher landing fees at National. Right now, buses to Dulles charge $7.75 and $8.75 each way. Despite the convenience of the Metro subway to National, spending the money to build a rail line to Dulles -- estimated to cost about $600 million -- is not contemplated.

DOT also will continue to try to make flights at Dulles more attractive to the airlines through a program of incentives begun last fall, continuing to waive landing fees and mobile lounge charges. The landing fees would range up to $220 a landing, depending on the size of the plane, and airlines used to pay the government $55 every time a mobile lounge was used.

At Dulles, DOT will also continue to permit small two-engine jets -- Boeing 737 and McDonnell Douglas DC9s -- and smaller commuter aircraft to use the gates at the base of the air traffic control tower on the airport's south concourse to pick up and discharge passengers. These gates, now used by Republic, Air Virginia, Air Vectors and Colgan Airways, allow quicker turn-around times for those aircraft by bypassing the mobile lounges.

The government also made clear that it plans no major expenditures to rebuild National in any significant way.

"I think we're throwing a firm, clear signal that this administration is committed to a lid on National and a conversion from National to Dulles," DOT Secretary Lewis said last week. "We want to start changing the traffic pattern from National to Dulles to a greater extent, but we recognize that we can't do it immediately with some of the limitations Dulles has, like the access road."

If the plan goes into effect -- the Carter plan was blocked last year by Congress -- the administration is convinced it will bring new business to Dulles. There's no question that there will be a shift," says J. Lynn Helms, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, the owner of the two airports, which now makes $10 million on National and loses $3 million on Dulles.

Millions more passengers would be using National over the next few years if its growth remains unrestrained, Helms said, adding that the limits will force some airlines and passengers to Dulles. "You'll start to see an improvement, really, as early as this fall" and "a significant increase" in three or four years, he predicted.

Dulles' manager Davis too says the rule will "help enormously" if it's put into effect by forcing the airlines for the first time to begin rational planning of where to make their investment in Washington over the next several years. After fixing the ground access problem, what will bring in the passengers are flights -- nonstop flights at times people want to go, flights that will begin coming to Dulles if National's growth is stopped, he says.

Good airline service is not currently Dulles' forte. That's evident by the just-published first quick-reference flight schedule, giving a complete listing of all direct flights in and out of Dulles. It's an attractive and useful brochure, but it's not very thick. Airline service is good if you're going to Texas or Denver or the West Coast, all right or marginal to some points in Virginia and on the East Coast. But it's not much good most other places.

While there are more than 25 round-trip flights between National and Chicago, for instance, there is a single nonstop flight from Dulles to Chicago and nothing back. There's no daily nonstop service to Miami; no nonstop to New York City's accessible airports, LaGuardia and Newark; no nonstop service to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Minneapolis, New Orleans.

Although passengers can still get to London, Paris or Moscow nonstop from Dulles, even its international business has suffered over the past few years as new American cities became international gateways.

For instance, most transatlantic passengers from the South used to have to come north generally, either to New York or Dulles, to get to Europe. Delta Airlines used to pick up people all over the South and fly them through Atlanta to Dulles, where they connected with Pan American World Airways for flights abroad. Now passengers can go to Atlanta on Delta and then go nonstop from there to Europe on Delta; passengers can choose also to go south to Miami, choosing from four different airlines to fly to London. Even Baltimore-area travelers who might have come to Dulles to go abroad can now go to closer BWI for flights to London.

Dulles got a slight boost earlier this summer after the government barred airlines from flying nonstop to Texas from National. American and Pan Am began flights that stop at Dulles in either direction to pick up and let off passengers. An American spokesman said about a third of their passengers are getting off or boarding at Dulles.

Dulles had been growing 9 percent a year until 1979; hitting the lowest level in years, airline activity at Dulles in 1980 was down 34.7 percent from 1979. Passenger activity declined 26.5 percent. Now, 15 commercial airlines operate at Dulles, including three commuter lines. A fourth, Ransome Airlines, will start Aug. 1 with flights to Philadelphia and on to New York. United Airlines is the big operator at Dulles with eight round trips a day.

Could there even be overcrowding in Dulles' future? "That's a problem I'd love to be confronted with, but don't anticipate during my tenure as secretary of Transportation," Lewis sighs. Dulles actually can accomodate more than twice the traffic it now sees without any significant capital expansion if the flights are spaced throughout the day and not bunched as they are now.

But if expansion is required, unlike National, Dulles has all the space it needs with total grounds that are two-thirds as large as Manhattan Island. Everything about the airport was laid out, optimistically, with expansion in mind. Three long runways are already there; a fourth can be built.

Airplanes have 30 places to sit at the jet parking apron, and there is room to build facilities for 60 additional parking places. The apron at the base of the control tower can be doubled from 10 t0 20 gates. The 600-foot terminal building was constructed so that it could be expanded readily by adding 300-foot extensions on either end. Even 5,000 parking spaces can be added to the 3,400 public spaces now available.

Without making any moves in the direction of major expansion, Dulles management has continued to make changes to better accomodate the airlines and passengers now using Dulles, just finishing up a $9 million project to expand the passenger and baggage handling space.

Completing the passenger handling end last month, Dulles conveniently separated its passengers so that those outbound go through one of two gates in the middle of the terminal and those inbound come through the two gates at either end, never bumping into each other.

To free 300 more parking places closer to the terminal building, Dulles is in the process of moving the auto rental firms taking up those spaces to new facilities on a nearby service road.

Despite some carrier complaints about the use of mobile lounges, Dulles officials still favor them. "They save wear and tear on folks," James A. Wilding, the FAA's Director of Metropolitan Washington Airport, says. "We continue to think it's a winner." Fresh from Catholic University, Wilding was civil engineer on the Dulles planning team in the 1950s.

Both Wilding and Davis point out the lounge system provides the airlines with millions of dollars of benefits a year by saving them the expenses that would be required at other airports, like staffing and maintaining concourse operations, paying for utilities, public address systems, separate baggage claim areas, the expensive tugs that push planes around at airports, the fuel used during taxiing, and so on.

The twin-airport problem has plagued transporation officials for years, but now DOT's Lewis thinks there is "a reasonable chance" to get his airport policy through Congress and begin to see some transition from National to Dulles.

Even so, he knows that it's likely the airlines at National won't be able to agree among themselves on cutting down their flights, and that he'll then be back in the airport business.

"I'd much prefer to have them do it," he said last week. "I'd much prefer to have this whole problem at the Department of Commerce, if you want to know the truth."