The Consumer Federation of America yesterday released a new consumer guide that rates the airlines in terms of fares and service and recommends pain-relief strategies for the traveling public.

The nonprofit group relied principally on the Department of Transportation's data on consumer complaints for its assessment of service, and ranked Continental, Eastern, Northwest, Pan American and Trans World airlines as very poor. Those airlines have generally been at the top of the charts compiled by DOT based on consumer complaints.

The group also used fare data on 17 frequently traveled routes to produce averages that were used to rank the airlines. The figure was based on fares available two days prior to the flight and also compared average fares between carriers competing on at least three routes. Pacific Southwest Airlines and American and United airlines were ranked as the highest-priced carriers. Three small airlines with limited routes -- Southwest, Braniff and Midway -- ranked as the cheapest.

Although the report doesn't compare fares on specific routes, the bottom line for most consumers, its authors -- Stephen Brobeck and Jack Gillis -- said the study would help consumers find the best fares.

"How To Fly," which is available by mail from the CFA in Washington, also contains information on airports, including parking fees, the hours of the bars and restaurants and the different means of getting downtown. Many of its tips on travel, however, appear to be aimed at the infrequent flyer, rather than the business or frequent traveler. For instance, the guide to flight selection defines such terms as nonstop, direct and connecting flights and recommends buying tickets in advance and carrying luggage on board to avoid long lines at ticket counters.

The report comes at the end of a year that has focused intense scrutiny on airline performance. The DOT began issuing information on airlines' on-time performance, baggage handling and overbookings beginning last month, and legislation is pending in Congress that would impose even stricter reporting standards. By the end of the year travel agents will be able to compare airlines' on-time performance on specific flights, based on the DOT data.

On Saturday the National Association of Attorneys General released guidelines for enforcing state consumer protection statutes for airline advertising and frequent flier programs. The guidelines, which had been opposed by the airline industry, go into effect Jan. 15, and require additional disclosure and more prominent display of restrictions on discount fares in advertising and limit the airlines' ability to change the rules in frequent flyer programs.