Many years ago, a passenger arriving at National Airport found it easy to complete the final leg of his journey to an address in the Washington area.

In those days, the airport sold its taxicab concession to the highest bidder, and the winner of the concession made sure that clean, comfortable cabs would at all times be instantly available at reasonable prices.

This system worked well, so it had to be changed. This is explained by section 82(c) of Gold's Law, which states, "If a thing works well, people can't resist improving it until it becomes fouled up."

So the airport cab concession was eliminated. All hackers were permitted to pick up passengers at National, and from that moment on I began to get complaints from riders who had been overcharged, ignored, insulted or otherwise mistreated.

Attempts to check out these complaints often left me frustrated. I found myself dealing with the Federal Aviation Administration (which regulates cab loading at National), the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Commission (which sets interstate fares from the airport into the District and Maryland), and various agencies in the District and neighboring countries that have the power to issue hack licenses, revoke hack licenses, set cab fares and police the conduct of cabdrivers.

Trying to adjudicate complaints in this chaos was like trying to keep order in a zoo without cages.

I frequently had the feeling that somebody ought to "do something." But responsibility for the situation involved so many jealously defended pieces of bureaucratic "turf" that I could see no way out.

However, in yesterday's Washington Post, staff writer Jack Eisen brought us news that WMATC had, for the first time in its 20-year existence, summoned a hacker to respond to complaints against him a formal hearing. Jack B. Dembo was accused of overcharging passengers, refusing to issue a receipt, and supplying false information on a receipt.

Dembo was accused of eight specific overcharges, none of them involving nickels and dimes. In one instance, WMATC says he charged $18.50 to drive a passenger from the airport to the Shoreham, a trip the commission says should have cost $6.80. In another case, Dembo is said to have charged $74.20 for a trip to Bowie that should have cost $21.

Part of the problem is that District cabs have no meters. They abandon their zone rate structure when they cross into Maryland or Virginia and base their charges on the mileage shown on the taxi's odometer. But the average passenger never sees the odometer, and he doesn't know how much the law says he can be charged per mile anyhow. So he's ripe for plucking when a hacker announces at the end of a $6 trip, "That'll be $18."

If WMATC doesn't wait another 20 years to bring its second case against a hacker working out of National, the word may get around that somebody is finally willing to assume the role of lion tamer at National's zoo. Meanwhile, another significant date will occur long before the year 2001. On April 21, 1981, Dembo will be given a hearing and an opportunity to deny the charges that have been lodged against him. MEMORY LANE

My friend Harold Johnson is what you might call a dyed-in-the-wool baseball fan. On the eve of the opening of the new season, he put a deadpan question to me.

"I'm getting awfully tired of this long road trip the Nats are on," Harold said. "When do they play their next home game?"

I am surprised that Harold hasn't heard that Bowie Kuhn kept his promise and helped us get a new team. It is called "The Orioles" and it plays in a ballpark that's conveniently located a few blocks from the White House. Just drive straight out New York Avenue until you get hungry or thirsty. You can't miss it.

I think we owe Bowie our sincere thanks. THESE MODERN TIMES

Herm Albright, sage of the Perry Township (Ind.) Weekly, comments:

"Some of our TV anchormen are being paid twice as much for reading the news as President Reagan is paid for making it."

Yes, Herm, and what's more their working conditions are a lot safer. Nobody threatens them except the fellows who compile the ratings.