It's no secret that many Americans are rethinking their plans to travel abroad. Recent terrorist attacks at airports in Rome and Vienna, along with the earlier TWA hijacking ordeal in Beirut, raised very serious questions about safety at foreign airports.

But are U.S. airports any safer? If you use National and Dulles airports as a benchmark, the answer is no. Just consider what happened at the two airports one week ago.

An anonymous caller, claiming to be a Libyan, told officials at National that he had paid a number of cabdrivers to put bombs in unnattended vehicles and restrooms at the airport. A separate report on the same day suggested that a Libyan terrorist armed with explosives would be flying into either National or Dulles from Canada.

Fortunately for the 55,000 passengers -- including a countless number of U.S. and foreign dignitaries -- who use National and Dulles airports every day, these warnings turned out to be false. But so were reports by the media that police officers at both airports were put on "special alert." My own discussions with Federal Aviation Administration police supervisors responsible for law enforcement at National and Dulles revealed that no such special alert was issued. In truth, both airports were as vulnerable on that day of the terrorist attack warnings as they are every other day of the year.

Because of my background of 23 years in police work, I was approached by a number of FAA police officers in 1983 about serious security problems that exist at National and Dulles, largely as a result of an underpaid, understaffed and overworked police force. A subsequent General Accounting Office study confirmed the seriousness of these problems; yet the situation appears to be getting worse.

Consider, for example, that in 1981 there were 120 FAA police officers assigned just to National Airport. Today, there are only 72 armed officers split between National and Dulles, about 50 officers short of the authorized level. Since these officers work in eight- hour shifts, it is not unusual to have only six police officers patrolling the 680 acres at National or the nearly 12,000 acres, plus the 13- mile access road, at Dulles. This is barely enough to control traffic flow, let alone combat terrorists. By the way, the people manning the X-ray machines and metal detectors are not police personnel. They are contract employees to the airlines, and they have no firearms and no power to make arrests.

To make matters worse, police at the two airports have no bullet resistant vests, gas masks or tear gas, which is standard equipment at most police departments. They have an insufficient number of motor vehicles, and their radios are about 16 years old. Their manpower shortage became so severe that last year the FAA assigned one of its firefighters to assume police dispatching duties at National.

Understaffing also means too much work and stress for the officers who do police National and Dulles. The GAO study found that staffing shortages forced FAA police officers to put in almost twice as many overtime hours as any of the 23 other police forces they surveyed. In fact, they pointed to one officer who totaled 2,450 overtime hours one year, or an extra 306 working days on top of his normal schedule. The average for FY 1983 was an extra 87 days' worth of overtime work. For 1985, the totals were even higher, with some $900,000 being spent by the FAA on overtime pay for police at National and Dulles.

Are you thinking that poor management must be to blame? Try no management! There is no chief of the FAA police. There are no captains and there is no inspector. These three top management positions are all vacant, and they have been for some time. The chain of command is even weaker when you consider that no officer has been promoted to sergeant since 1981. In fact, more than 80 percent of FAA police officers surveyed during the GAO study blamed "management policies" and "management/employee relation practices" for low morale. The biggest problem, according to the GAO study, is that the FAA pays its police officers so little they have trouble recruiting and retaining qualified personnel. The starting salary for a FAA police officer is $14,578, or the equivalent of what a GS-4 clerk-typist makes. That is intolerable, but the FAA cannot be fully blamed. Last year, it requested a substantial pay raise for the officers, but the Office of Personnel Management approved only a partial increase.

I am convinced that the security situation at National and Dulles will not improve as long as OPM controls the pay scale for FAA police officers. That is why I am about to introduce a bill that will establish a separate and far more competitive pay system for FAA police officers. In addition, the bill would exempt the FAA police force and other civil aviation security programs from Gramm- Rudman-Hollings cuts.

I am motivated to improve security at National and Dulles for this reason: I am a consumer who flies in and out of Washington about 100 times a year. The issue seems crystal clear: National and Dulles are security risks, tragedies waiting to happen. If we act now, we can avert those tragedies.