A fact sheet put out by Presidential Airways, the struggling airline based at Washington Dulles International Airport, asks: "What is Presidential Airways Inc.?"

The way things are going, the company could amend the release to read: "What is Presidential Airways Inc. this week?"

Presidential has been through an amazing number of transformations in its short life. Since it opened for business in October 1985, it has been:

An airline in its own right, contending to dominate scheduled service out of Washington Dulles International Airport;

An entrant into the charter airline business, with its purchase of Key Airlines -- which it subsequently sold;

A feeder airline called Continental Express, shuttling passengers from smaller cities to Continental Airlines flights from Dulles.

Now Presidential is changing again. Earlier this month, the company announced it had ended its relationship with Continental, which had sharply reduced its service from Dulles.

In its current incarnation, Presidential again is flying under its own colors -- President Harold J. (Hap) Pareti refers to the Earl Scheib discount car painting chain when he jokes about the frequent paint jobs his airplanes have had -- and trying to find a new niche that will allow it to prosper.

In the third quarter of 1987, the last period for which figures are available, Presidential lost $4.8 million, or 65 cents a share. Its stock, which came on the market at 6 1/8, was trading at the end of 1987 at 3/8, although it has recently bobbed back up to close to a dollar.

Still, the airline has survived the shakeout that disposed of other new carriers that hoped to ride the deregulated air industry to prosperity. The Continental pact, which was announced a year ago and included the sale of Presidential's midfield terminal, brought in some cash and bought some time. Presidential realized $6.3 million in cash and got rid of $5.2 million in obligations in the transaction.

Presidential has also been kept aloft by a $5.7 million loan from BAE Inc., the American subsidiary of British Aerospace, most of which is in the form of lease deferrals. Presidential has bought several of the aircraft manufacturer's BAe 146s to replace some of the Boeing 737-200s in its fleet.

The fleet reconfiguration has helped Presidential survive, and is part of its marketing strategy. The smaller, lower-cost aircraft have reduced costs, which has softened the impact of declining revenue. It also has focused Presidential's marketing on smaller cities, where the airline faces little competition from other carriers. The airline serve 13 cities, including Albany, N.Y.; Daytona Beach, Fla; Indianapolis; Knoxville and Hunstville, Ala.

"In our markets, we're the only carrier between there and Dulles, and in many of them we're the only nonstop service to Washington," Pareti said.

The question is whether there are enough passengers in those markets seats to produce a profit. Presidential's load factor has been high enough to produce a profit in only a few months so far. The airline has not had a profitable quarter.

The airline hopes to add service to similar markets and may also eventually serve as a feeder airline to other carriers, Pareti said. Presidential already is providing Pan American World Airways with feeder service from Norfolk.

When Presidential signed the marketing agreement to provide connecting service for Continental, the larger airline operated nearly 90 flights a day from Dulles and planned to increase its service from the airport. Instead, Continental has reduced its service from Dulles to 37 flights a day and has focused on Newark International Airport instead.

Continental acquired a terminal at Newark as part of its acquisition of People Express, the prototype discount airline that succumbed to financial problems last year.

Presidential will continue to lease gates at Dulles from Continental, but is relocating its operations from the midfield terminal to the base of the tower at Dulles, eliminating the trip to the second terminal in a mobile lounge.

Presidential had hoped to become a major carrier out of Dulles, but competition from New York Air (merged into Continental on the same day the marketing agreement between Continental and Presidential was announced) and United doomed that hope. For a time, the airline hung on against the competition, but it was beginning to have a desperate air about it before the Continental deal was announced.

"The Continental agreement gave us a chance to readjust our route system and our fleet," said Pareti, and kept the airline alive as the competitive situation at Dulles changed.

Now, Presidential is the second largest user of Dulles "which is where they want to be," said Thomas G. Morr, president of the Washington Dulles Task Force, a private organization that promotes growth at the airport. "They set out to be a major operator at Dulles, and they are."

Presidential recently signed a $4 million contract with BAE to provide management and crews for BAe 146s that Westair, a California commuter airline, will use to provide feeder service to United.

A BAE spokesman said the aircraft builder considers Presidential an excellent provider of maintenance and operations.

Presidential's future may be a combination of providing scheduled service and acting as a contractor providing services for other airlines at Dulles or other airports, Pareti said.

"Structurally, we're in better shape. We have a better cost structure, the industry has sorted itself out and we have better yields and routes," Pareti said.

When the company sold stock to the public, it estimated it would take 18 months to two years to become profitable. "Really, 1988 has to be a year that will have very conservative growth," Pareti said. "We've got to turn that corner to profitability."