The president of complaint-plagued Continental Airlines said yesterday that the airline is recovering rapidly from service problems that resulted from its consolidation of People Express, New York Air and Frontier Airlines.

"A safe, reliable high-value product is what Continental continues to provide," said Thomas Plaskett, who testified before the House aviation subcommittee yesterday.

But Plaskett encountered some skepticism from members of the committee. "To be brutally frank, it seems to me, listening to my colleagues and constituents, what you're telling me is hard to square with that," said Chairman Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.).

Mineta noted that Continental and Eastern Air Lines, both owned by Texas Air Corp., accounted for almost half of the complaints about airline service filed with the Department of Transportation last month. Continental also had by far the highest rate of complaints -- 21.39 per 100,000 passengers -- in May, more than double second-place Eastern's 10.11 and third-place Trans World Airlines' 8.68, according to DOT figures.

Plaskett said that many of those complaints reflected problems that had occurred earlier. He also attempted to pin some of the complaints on competitors.

Plaskett said that Continental "has been the target of competitor actions which might exceed the bounds of fair play." For instance, he said, notices had appeared on bulletin boards at a competing airline that urged employes not to jam Continental's toll-free complaint number. The effect of the memo, which reprinted the number, was actually to encourage such actions, he said.

Plaskett and virtually every other witness said that consumers are increasingly demanding better service of airlines. "I believe we are entering a new phase of deregulation . . . a new service-competition phase," he said.

Several members of Congress have introduced legislation aimed at improving airline service. "Airline passengers are outraged and are demanding that Congress and the Executive Branch do whatever is necessary to improve the situation," Mineta said.

"The public perception that airline service has 'gone to hell' is unfortunate because there are significant differences in the service levels and practices of various airlines," said Robert L. Crandall, American Airlines' chairman and president.

American and Continental have both proposed that airlines provide more information about how well they perform in several service-related areas. DOT has proposed such a requirement.

"Air travel is no longer an enjoyable experience in many cases," said Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).