It's an air battle, all right, and now it's moved once again into the air lanes.

It's the ongoing battle between smoker and nonsmoker.

And the huffing and puffing may be turning as many people blue with oxygen starvation as red with anger. Not right away, maybe, but sooner or later, and quite literally.

Currently airborne controversy is raging at both the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The CAB is considering abolishing regulations governing smoking on board the planes -- the rules that keep smokers as a group, apart from nonsmokers. (Hearings have already been held and a decision is expected June 18.)

Over at the FAA the problem concerns the lowering of the ventilation in airline cabins, one of a number of moves airlines are instituting to save fuel. a

Smoking seems to be an issue that touches off the most primal hostilities between otherwise (more or less) civilized people.

Smoking is particularly noxious to ex-smokers and becomes more so as the ex-smoker becomes a confirmed non-smoker. As scientific evidence against smoking mounts, many confirmed smokers, backs now to the wall, are becoming increasingly self-disgusted and doubly resentful of the demands being made by their healthier-than-thou fellow humans.

But other people's smoke is more than a nuisance, a fact increasingly well documented in scores of international studies.

And although an FAA spokesman noted recently that even when one of the three ventilation packs in airlines is shut down, "the ventilation is probably better than in a sealed office building where there are smokers . . .," that may be a little consolation.

This, indeed, is just the point that has been made for years by Dr. Alfred Munzer, past president, of the D.C. Lung Association and associate director of the pulmonary medicine department of Washington Adventist Hospital. He is fond of noting that if the indoor carbon monoxide levels, for example, were outside, there would probably be a pollution alert. "If the pollution laws were applied indoors, there would be a lot of violators," he will add.

"And as far as planes go, it may be true [that the ventilation is no worse than in sealed offices], he said recently, "but look at how many people are crowded into how small a space."

Dr. Munzer testified before the CAB on behalf of the American Lung Association on whose board he sits. He urged a wholesale ban on smoking on airlines as did witnesses for other antismoking groups including Action on Smoking and Health -- ASH.

ASH general counsel Paul N. Pfeiffer also cited the risk of airline fires, exacerbated by pipes and cigars, but potentially threatened as well by careless use of cigarettes, especially in rest rooms where smoking prohibitions are largely ignored, he said.

Insofar as smoking goes, health and safety are not factors to the airlines.

Kathleen Argiropoulos, counsel to the Air Transport Association, which lobbies for some 29 air carriers, said "the carriers are neither prosmoking nor antismoking. It is not in their interest to be one or the other and their goal is to serve both parties in as good a way as possible. They want to the government regulations off the books so they may serve in the way they perceive the public wants."

She suspects, she says, that the current smoking rules would stay in effect, but that the airlines "want the option" of adjusting them as they perceive the market demands. This would also apply to current voluntary bans on pipes and cigars.

However, this is less than satisfactory to the lung associations or to ASH. Says Dr. Munzer, "A total ban on smoking in aircraft is the only way to get complete protection. Smoking is still the principal source of indoor pollution and in an aircraft that is aggravated because the air is relatively dry. There is also a high ozone level in high-altitude aircraft which is an irritant itself, so smoking compounds the irritant effect."

What happens to cigarette smoke on an airplane is simple. It drifts. It wafts poetically, artistically in curling wisps, out of the smoking section into the noses and eyes and lungs and bloodstreams of the "passive" or "involuntary" smokers -- those who don't want to smoke but who may be inhaling the tar and nicotine of about a cigarette every hour or two. When cigars and pipes are present it is even worse.

In many ways, says Dr. Munzer, sidestream smoke is more toxic than mainstream smoke (that inhaled by the smoker). Sidestream smoke, for example, has 73 times the amount of ammonia. It has 2 1/2 times as much carbon monoxide.

Studies in the past few years have demonstrated that:

Children are adversely affected by sidestream smoke. Children of smoking parents have more respiratory problems and are hopsitalized because of them more often. A study in a current edition of the American Review of Respiratory Diseases shows a distinct correlation between the loss of lung function in children between the ages of 6 and 13 in smoking households.

Persons with heart ailments can be seriously, even fatally, affected by amounts of carbon monoxide that might not be obvious to others. Carbon monoxide prevents the absorbtion of oxygen.

A 14-year study in Japan disclosed a higher-than-normal incidence of lung cancers in nonsmoking wives of smoking husbands.

Cases of passive smokers suffering from Raynaud's syndrome, a painful and sometimes dangerous condition marked by spasms of small blood vessels, especially in fingers, have been reported in medical journals.

A study of some 2,100 subjects who did not smoke, but worked in a smoking environment concluded last year that "chronic exposure to tobacco smoke in the work environment is deleterous to the nonsmoker and significantly reduces small-airways function."

Studies have demonstrated that a real allergy to tobacco and tobacco smoke exists and that sufferers may experience respiratory distress, burning eyes, vomiting and other symptons.

Short of an outright ban on smoking, the antismoking groups would like:

More stringent enforcement of smoking violations.

No smoking during the times one or more of the ventilation packs are turned off -- if, indeed, they need to be turned off.

No smoking during delays on the ground when ventilation is diminished.

No smoking on flights shorter than two hours or in planes with fewer than 30 passengers.

Placement of a physical barrier between smoking and nonsmoking sections to minimize drifting smoke.

Fred Ferrar, of the FAA, does not see the ventilation pack situation as a problem. "If the air in airplanes was stale and odorous," he said, "people would be complaining and nobody is. There are," he noted, "1.6 million air passengers a day."

"People don't complain," says retired government chemist Mildred A. Post, "because it is a waste of breath."

Post is the founder of the "Nonsmokers' Travel Club" which began in 1974 with 16 members in the Washington area and now has well over 1,000 members nationwide.

Members pay dues of $3 a year and may participate in trips throughout the world with nonsmoking traveling companions and only a minimum of exposure to other smokers. (Smokers are not permitted to join the club or participate in the trips).

Post ranks some airlines as cooperative and others as disasters.

The groups has been known to cancel trips at the last minute when protection against smoking is not as advertised, and Post feels strongly that "if the CAB is going to back down, the only thing to do is hit these airlines in the pocketbook."

Reserved for her particular scorn are Pan American, United, British Airways and Iberia airlines. She said that those airlines either configure the seating in a way that allows smoke to drift from several directions, or they do not enforce their own rules -- or, as in the case of British Airways, cigars are permitted. (Pan Am has recently improved its configuration in its large planes, according to ASH, and TWA is doing so as well.)

The club had a trip scheduled on Iberia, Post said, which was cancelled when it was discovered there was no nonsmoking section. (Foreign airlines are not required to abide by CAB regulations.)

Another airline to be avoided by nonsmokers, she said, is Air India.(In fact, the group was discouraged from a trip to India altogether because of the country's reputation as "heavy smoking." This is apparently a subject of some conflicting passions among Indians as well. Only last month, a group of Sikh students in a Punjab city threatened to beat up both smokers and sellers of cigarettes if the government did not ban smoking altogether and, according to reports in British papers, at least some sellers were threatened at gunpoint.)

American antismoking groups tend to be less violent, but do urge passengers to stand up for their rights.

Both ASH and the nonsmoking travelers also inform their members about airlines which are considerate of nonsmokers. Post says that from her own experience and reports of others, these include Eastern, Northwest, Olympic and Air France. Also, she said, Yugoslavian airlines has promised the group an entire nonsmoking cabin for their forthcoming trip to that country this fall.

Both ASH and Nonsmokers' Travel urge passengers to share their experiences. To report a complaint or for more information, write:

ASH, 2013 H. St. NW. Washington, D.C. 20006; or Nonsmokers' Travel Club, 8928 Bradmoor Drive, Bethesda, Md. 20034. Call the club at 530-1664.