Why oh why couldn't those meddlesome Wright brothers have minded their own damn business? They had to go and invent the airplane. The skies have been an unholy mess almost ever since -- more so in recent years, as NBC News observes in "Fear, Frustration -- and Flying," a "Report on America" at 10 tonight on Channel 4.

Any documentary on modern-day air travel that was not frightening would be a failure or a snow job. This one is frightening, and it's going to make a number of holiday fliers even warier than they already were. Correspondents Robert Hager and Lucky Severson report that the air lanes are too crowded, air traffic controllers overworked, close calls increasing, maintenance standards lax and the number of experienced, trained pilots for commercial jets insufficient.

None of these disclosures is blindingly new, but put together in a one-hour program, they add up to an alternately discouraging and terrifying picture. Hager handles the safety-related issues and Severson talks about passenger abuse, something the airlines have been perfecting to the level of an art form.

The matter of faulty security precautions is not addressed, and so the case of the California commuter flight that crashed recently after a reported shooting on board is not brought up. It may have happened too late for the program's deadline.

Another conspicuous omission is the name of Ronald Reagan, who, of course, is never told that Air Force One has been overbooked. When Reagan destroyed the air-traffic controllers' union near the beginning of his first term, he helped jeopardize a system already shaky. The lunatic prescription of airline deregulation is discussed, however. Since it began, some 110 small cities have lost air service altogether. Fares on major, big-city flights have gone down, but fares on smaller routes have skyrocketed.

Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) says late in the broadcast that the Department of Transportation has been "giving its allegiance to the industry," not the public -- much the way the Federal Communications Commission now completely capitulates to commercial broadcasting.

If anything, the NBC documentary seems a little soft on the airlines. A preliminary transcript of the program, compared with the finished product, shows deletions that contribute to this impression. For instance, this Hager observation about trouble-plagued Delta Airlines is now out:

"Delta had a run of pilot errors this summer . . . landing a passenger jet on a wrong runway in Boston, and another at a wrong airport one night in Kentucky. The FAA cited Delta for lapses of cockpit discipline."

Of course, this information has been abundantly reported elsewhere. And there is plenty within the documentary to give the airlines fits. According to Hager and Severson, both the government and the industry screwed up royally, and corrections in safety standards and overcrowding may not be put into effect until the 1990s.

Until then, it's a jungle up there.

The hour is fast-moving and tight. Some viewers may be confused when this or that doomed flight is mentioned, and its crash recalled, while another, similar plane is shown in flight onscreen. This practice of using representative footage and not identifying it has become so common in TV news that it may be futile to protest it.

Pilots, controllers and Federal Aviation Administration officials are interviewed. So are survivors of crashes. Wayne Nelson, who heard the midair collision of an Aeromexico 767 and a small private plane over his home in Cerritos, Calif., last year, remembers, "There was the most unusual and distinctive bang."

One of the more haunting lines comes from Severson, though it probably wasn't meant to be haunting. He says the airlines have made some small improvements in passenger service after waves of complaints and says that, in addition, passengers have adjusted their own attitudes: "We buy our tickets earlier, get to the airport sooner and don't expect as much."

No, we don't expect as much. We don't expect to leave or arrive even remotely on time, don't expect our luggage to travel to the same destination we do, and don't expect ground personnel inside the airport to know what on earth they are doing. All we do is grip those armrests and hope to God we'll live to see mom again.