Those of the critical persuasion must, of course, maintain the highest of esthetic and artistic standards and abide by them at all times. For example, one of my discriminating and erudite critical criteria is, I will watch absolutely anything that takes place on an airplane in distress.

There's just nothing to quite equal the pleasure of not being on an airplane in distress. Of not being on an airplane, period.

Even so, this week's ABC Sunday Night Movie, "Starflight: The Plane That Couldn't Land," is something to be escaped from, not into. And it sounds so surefire, too--another campy, kooky, rompy rout like "SST, Disaster in the Sky," recently and irresistibly rerun as the CBS Late Movie. That's the picture in which a nut has sabotaged the plane, and a large hole is blown in its bottom, and everybody on board has had an affair with everybody else on board, and all of them risk infection with a deadly virus that gets loose from the cargo hold. What a corker!

Lorne Greene played the evil industrialist in "SST"--there's always an evil industrialist--and in "Starflight," an unforgivably poky three hours starting at 9 tomorrow on Channel 7, the role goes to venerable sneerer Ray Milland, playing a peeved oyster once again. That's good for some welcome titters, but otherwise, there's much too little happening in this overly somber in-flight adventure. Writer Robert Malcolm Young didn't invent enough goofy subplots or ripe, blossoming characters, and director Jerry Jameson manages to turn hypersonic speed into a crawl.

This latest in the long line of ill-fated flights is supposed to be the first hypersonic, rocket-boosted passenger flight, from Los Angeles to Australia in two hours, but, oops, somebody sends up a missile from Australia at just the wrong instant (by delirious coincidence, the man who gives the order to launch is a passenger on the HST!), and after the missile goes off course and is blown up, the HST gets smacked in the flank by a piece of its debris.

That sets off the rockets and propels the plane into helpless orbit above the earth. It's a sticky situation, but it lacks dramatic dynamism. Although the special effects models engineered by John Dykstra are attractive and persuasive enough, there's something not all that thrilling about watching an airplane loll around in outer space for hours on end.

If something were happening inside, that might compensate, but the leading players are a sleepy Lee Majors as the captain and a wispy Lauren Hutton as a public relations woman, supposedly a torrid item, though a duller pair of murmuring roomies you couldn't find. When five of the passengers are burned alive during a rescue attempt in space, Hutton and Majors stare at them from the cockpit as blankly as if they were window shopping on Rodeo Drive.

The passenger list includes a pair of honeymooners, Robert Webber as a smart-alecky TV reporter, some gold bullion that gets loose and dangles about in the hold before snuggling together at a hole in the fuselage, and the late ambassador to Australia and his widow. In the story's most ludicrous turn, the designer of the plane (Hal Holbrook, looking very grim indeed) has to disinter the ambassador so he can use his casket as an airtight transport to the Space Shuttle Columbia, which is docked outside.

Er, Mrs. Ambassador? We have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that Hal Holbrook is leaving. The bad news . . .

Writer Young failed to deploy the plot complications nimbly or in time, and while one may expect these things to be cheerfully preposterous, it really is asking too much of an audience to expect it to believe the Columbia would be sent up not just once, or twice, but three times in an attempt to grab a stranded passenger or two. As for the incidental subcrises along the way, well, it'll be a long time before this viewer, feeling rather stranded himself, can forget that moment of sheer stark-raving terror when the stricken stewardess tells the stoic flyboy, "Captain, we can't make any coffee! It just globs up and floats!" The horror, the horror!

Still, the coffee is in better shape than the film. It just globs up and sinks.