IN TODAY'S chaotic airways, the cry of the frustrated traveler is understandably loud. Flying has become a first-class hassle, loaded with delays, rude service, overbookings, understaffings and incidents that raise alarms about safety. The fashionable explanation for all these troubles is one word: deregulation. If they just hadn't deregulated the airlines, goes the argument, we wouldn't have all these problems. While the ups and downs of fares and quality of airline employee service have been affected by differences in airline competition as well as composition, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole has insisted that safety has not been deregulated and won't be. On the contrary, stiffer regulations are in order.

It isn't enough to point out that 1986 was one of the safest years ever -- even if the volume of passengers served and millions of miles flown were records. Close calls, pilot errors, reported breakdowns of computers and concerns about the adequacy of airport facilities and air controllers all have justifiably fed passenger anxiety. Just recently, in a rare show of unity, the airlines and various other users of the aviation system came up with a set of proposals for addressing safety and efficiency. A chief concern is what the group considers to be a "broken promise" to use fees collected for the Aviation Trust Fund to improve facilities significantly.

Secretary Dole and the new head of the Federal Aviation Administration, T. Allan McArtor, are pledging progress in improving the air traffic control system; so is Congress, and so are the airlines. There is plenty of credit to go around if the public can only sense more genuine improvements -- and read about fewer near-collisions. But the direction shouldn't be backward to rules for everything every airline does. Safety is the key question here.