staff of The Washington Post, reporters raced one weekday afternoon by car, taxi and subway from downtown to National Airport, as many people do for business trips each day.

Start: 3:30 p.m. from the Washington Post building at 15th and L. Street NW.

Finish: The gate for Eastern Airlines' New York and Boston shutt flights at National Airlines.

Car: 20 minutes.

Taxi: 26 minutes.

Subway: 46 minutes! Subway

In the McPherson Square subway station, at 15th and I Sts. W., (a short walk from the Post), there is a brightly colored chart that has all the authority of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority behind it. The chart tells the rider how long it takes to get by subway to each stop along the Blue Line. According to this chart, it takes 13 minutes to get to National Airport from the McPherson Square on the Blue Line.

There are those who now know better.

By the time the subway train finally chugged into the McPherson Square station at 3:46 p.m., uneasy glances were being exchanged over the Samsonite suitcases. There were, after all, planes to catch.

Like undaunted romantics, many of these travelers were willing to give Metro a chance, no matter how many times they had been betrayed in the past. There were, they said, pragmatic reasons for this optimism. For Cliff Foster, a reporter with the National Catholic News Service, it was a choice between spending the money for a taxi or buying a drink on the plane to Boston. The drink won.

Renee Rysdahl, a lawyer, had weighed the choice carefully and finally decided that the subway would be faster than a taxi, given what was sure to be the pre-Christmas mayhem at the airport. "Of course," she said, "it will depend to some extent on the shuttle bus (from the subway to the airport terminal). It'll be interesting to see how that works."

If this had been a movie, an ominous note would have suddenly sounded in the musical score, but instead the train rolled on as one passenger did a dramatic reading of a murder story feature prominently in the New York dailies.

By 4:04 National Airport was in sight through the grimy subway windows. A certain collective sigh seemed about to rise up from would-be travelers when a voice said over the loudspeaker: "The train will be delayed until the train coming from National Airport is past."

"There better be a shuttle bus waiting for us," said Rysdahl, whose plane for Minneapolis was leaving at 4:30.

"Do you need a transfer to get on the bus?" wondered someone else aloud.

"This is like docking the Queen Mary," said Chris Janku, as the subway train stopped and started its way into the Airport Station.

From the beginning, Rysdahl had seemed prepared for anything. She approached the possibility of delay with the dispassionate interest of a scientist or some other professional observer. She had been calm standing on the platform waiting for the subway to come. She had been calm while explaining how Metro was rapidly becoming "a lyegitimate excuse" for why people were late to meetings around town. She had been calm when discussing the Interstate Commerce Commission hearing that started an hour late because the other side was stuck in a subway tunnel.

She did not even look astonished, as some of the others did, when the train finally stopped and she saw exactly how far away the station was from the airport terminal.

In fact, it was only when an anonymous voice on the loudspeaker returned that a flicker of distress and a look of grim determination surfaced on Rysdahl's face. "Ladies and gentlemen," the voice said. "It is now 4:07. The courtesy buses are all tied up in traffic. You will make better time if you walk."

They ran as fast as they could run with three suitcases.

They yelled, to put it politely. Yelled as well as they could yell with forecards clenched between their teeth.

They darted between marauding taxicabs, stumbled over curbs and each other. Some of them swore a lot. Rysdahl disappeared somewhere in the short term parking lot.

At 4:16, I arrived at the Eastern shuttle gate and watched the last passengers board the shuttle to New York City.