THE LAST TIME we looked in on the effort in Congress to weaken aircraft noise standards, things were not promising. The Senate had passed a bill to prolong the time during which airlines can continue to fly noisier-than-necessary planes, and the possibility seemed strong that the House would agree. But something happened to the bill on its way to the House floor, and the noise standards seem much safer now than they did just two weeks ago.

Twice within the period, proponents of relaxing the standards scaled down their legislation in attemps to make it acceptable to the House and the Carter administration. Finally, they withdrew it from consideration, fearing it would be defeated in a House vote. What remains of this effort to keep noisy airplanes in the air longer -- and this will be on the House calendar when it returns in January -- is a bill that is fortunately only a shadow of its former self.

The Senate had voted to exempt from the noise requirements that begin to take effect in 1981 almost all two- and three-engine jets and to authorize waivers of those requirements for some four-engine jets. Through a bit of parliamentary maneuvering, this proposal went directly to a conference committee without ever having been debated on the House floor.

The conference's first effort at a "compromise" was a bill to exempt two-engine planes and permit waivers for some three-engine planes, but to leave the rules as they now are for the biggest jets. When anti-noise congressmen and Secretary of Transportation Neil Goldschmidt set out to rally opposition to it, the bill's sponsors reconvened the conference committee. Their second compromise proposal limited the exemptions to come, but not all, two-engine planes. That was a version finally withdrawn after a rule permitting it to come up in the House before adjournment was approved by only three votes.

An argument can (and no doubt will) be made that the House should accept this last proposal because the Senate and the airlines have given up so much of what they wanted. They are now prepared to settle for a minor breach in the noise standards, having started out seeking a huge breakthrough. But that misses the point of what has been going on. The opposition to this legislation rests on the belief that anti-pollution standards once set should not be relaxed except for overwhelming economic or technical reasons. Proponents of weakening the noise standards couldn't make that case to the satisfaction of a majority in the House for the three- and four-engine planes, and it seems unlikely that can make it for the smaller ones, either.

Rather than regard what remains of the Senate's original bill as a "compromise," members of the House should examine it on its merits. Before even so limited a relaxation of standards is passed, its propononents should be forced to prove that overwhelming reasons exist to delay the time at which those who live near airports begin to get some relief from noise in the sky.