PRESIDENT FORD'S recent rejection of the new transatlantic air routes recommended by the Civil Aeronautics Board last summer is hardly a surprise. The chairman of the CAB had dissented vigorously from the decision and there had been considerable public criticism of it. By sending the matter back to the board, with directions that it submit a new recommendation by next September 1, Mr. Ford may have cleared the way for the kind of reorganization of international aviation that is desperately needed.

There is, of course, a great deal of unhappiness with the President's action. The airlines that had won major new routes from the CAB - most notably Delta and Northwest - are understandably disappointed. So are several major cities, many of them in the South, which would have gained the status of gateway points from which direct overseas flights could begin or end. But there is no justification for the denunciation expressed by the chairman of Delta, who called Mr. Ford's action "a good way to slap the South" for voting so heavily for President-elect Carter.

The trouble with the CAB's original recommendation, as we said last summer when it was announced, is that it failed to deal with the structure of the transatlantic aviation market. The two major American airlines in that field - Pan-American and TWA - are in serious financial difficulty. They compete for passengers with airlines that are owned by or subsidized by governments. Landing rights are negotiated, usually on a reciprocal basis, between government. Mr. Ford is quite right in saying that the CAB did not adequately consider these and similar factors in arriving at its recommendation. The transatlantic market, like the rest of international aviation, is not one in which the existing process of airline regulation works well.

Nevertheless, Mr. Ford's action may well have given the CAB an assignment it cannot fulfill. A majority of its members wrote last summer that they did not believe it had authority to depart from its normal and traditional procedures in order to restructure a major part of the airline business. The CAB, they argued, is a quasi-judical agency which is bound by the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act and by the evidence presented to it. In other words, a majority of the board said that it could not do some of those things Mr. Ford is now telling it to do. Whether that position will now change remains to be seen.

What is needed, of course, is a massive re-shaping of government policy towards the entire airline industry, domestic as well as international. That is a task which we think should be undertaken by the executive branch and Congress and not by the CAB. There are many hard questions: How many American overseas carriers should there be? Should they be subsidized? What are the chances of reducing over capacity and under-pricing through international negotiations? Should government regulation be decreased drastically in domestic markets? We urge Mr. Ford to tell Congress before he leaves office how he thinks these and other questions ought to be approached. And we urge Congress to face up, finally, to the problem of trying to make some sense out of a system of regulation that was appropriate for the airline business in its struggling infancy but simply does not work at the present time. Even if the CAB is to be left with the problem of working out the details of a new national and international aviation structure, it ought to have better guidelines to work with.