I am a sufficiently grizzled and weary traveler to recall a day when riding on a commercial airline was a pleasurable experience. That was prior to deregulation, which transformed those lovely aluminum wonders into airborne subways, lacking only sweaty straphangers, graffiti scribblings and the likes of Bernhard Goetz and James Ramseur battling in the aisles. Suffice it to say that air travel isn't what it used to be.

The great race driver, Parnelli Jones, once described the grueling, off-road Baja California 1,000-mile race as an "all-day plane crash." I submit that the same description applies to any number of commercial flights I have paid good money to flagellate myself on -- flights that cost too much, went too slowly, provided awful service in transit and placed the traveler at risk in a steadily deteriorating air-traffic environment. I recently had a streak during which my bags were lost on seven out of nine flights. Now, seven for nine in the National League will get you a mention in Sports Illustrated, but the same average with luggage is enough to make you wish the pollyannas at the FAA who say the air-travel system is working swimmingly were elected, not appointed.

Commercial aviation is about as luxurious as the average Trailways bus. But, as more and more Americans rush into the skies, duped as they are by come-on fire-sale fares, and while service in the Calcutta-like "hubs" (which seem craftily designed to have thousands of flights arrive and depart all within 30-minute time clusters) deteriorates to Third World standards, the desperate regular traveler must seek alternatives.

One can always charter a private jet, but at two grand an hour, air-traffic botches, bad weather and clogged runways can make the trip too pricey, even though there's often room for eight. What's more -- though I'm sure this is just my imagination -- they seem to crash a lot. First-class travel is a possible band-aid, but for twice the price, one still has to ride on the same time-delayed flights and face the same teeming mobs, the same lost luggage, the same prison food, the same frazzled flight attendants.

The train is a viable alternative for some, and John Madden's Amtrak ads have given it a certain cachet, but the vague possibility of swapping football tales with that colorful gentleman is more than offset by the snail-like pace, the corduroy roadbeds, the lack of service and the ever-present stench of stale cigars. For every 100-mph Metroliner, there are 10 rattlers wheezing from station to backwater station at a rate that would make Wells Fargo seem like the Concorde. What's more, like private jets, they seem to crash a lot -- just my imagination again, I'm sure.

If we eliminate airplanes and trains as viable modes of travel, we are left with ships (which for the average overland trip are of limited value) plus simpler modes of movement such as walking and cycling. And, oh yes, we have the automobile. Current wisdom has it that cars are not really for serious travel. They're okay for the morning home-to-office slog, or a weekend trundle to the mountains, but for the long-distance stuff they are simply too stubby-legged to compete with the wonder birds. But consider the observation of a veteran business traveler: "If you have plenty of time, fly. But if you're in a hurry, drive."

Sounds absurd, right? After all, how can a dinky little four-wheeler at 65 mph compete with a 600-mph jet aircraft over any distance? It can't, beyond 300 miles, but anything less, watch out.

Let us consider a trip of 250 miles, which is about the distance between most metropolitan centers in the United States. Now, call any airline of your choice and they will tell you such a trip takes about an hour, gate to gate. The odds are better than 2 to 1 that it will take longer, due to delays, but that will not be acknowledged. (American Airlines, to its everlasting credit, is now being more candid about flight times.) But there is more to a trip than "gate-to-gate." The real measurement is "portal-to- portal," the time consumed from the actual point of departure to the actual destination. Here's a real trip:

Drive from home (or business) to airport: one hour.

Airport parking, ticketing, boarding process: one hour.

Engine start-up, taxiing and runway wait: 30 minutes.

Actual flight, including climb-out and approach: one hour.

Taxi to gate and off-loading, baggage wait, car rental or cab line: 30 minutes.

Ground transport to final destination: one hour.

The total time for this trip, which I submit is fairly typical and costs about $150, is 5 hours, and the average speed is 50 miles per hour.

Now let's compare a trip by automobile between the same two points. Assuming the car is sitting in the driveway and can be driven to the door at the other end, there is a very real chance that a normal driver can average the same 50 miles per hour for the same trip. Even in the speed-choked eastern United States, interstate highway travel whistles along at 65 miles per hour, which makes a 50-mile-per-hour average, even with a stop for fuel and a bite of food, an easy mark. Moreover, one can motor along in privacy, with companions of one's choosing, not some bozo who wants to talk about slow-pitch softball or home equity loans or the kids in Wichita.

The same 250-mile trip by automobile computes this way:

Drive 250 miles at 50 miles per hour: 5 hours.

The cost, at $.50 per mile: $125.

There you have it: The businessman's advice is plausible. While the travel time by car is not necessarily quicker (although if you've ever been stacked up over La Guardia, you know it can be quicker), it is as fast as the airplane and probably cheaper. Moreover, you are in charge of your own destiny at the wheel of a car, and not a witless potential victim strapped inside a subsonic mailing tube. And besides, nobody can lose your luggage. ::