As the grim record of near collisions on the nation's airways proliferates, you and I are taking a bigger chance flying than ever before.

To be sure, as we will be reminded by the industry, it's riskier to drive on the nation's highways. The numbers boys can also massage the statistics to convince you that flying is safer than ever -- that if there are more accidents and near misses, it's because more people are flying.

I just don't believe it's that simple, and neither do many of my fellow airline passengers. And looking out the window when you're 30,000 feet up, statistics are of little comfort. What you think about, instead, is that Ronald Reagan may have put the air controllers in their place when he broke their union, but fewer of those guys are out there, monitoring the skyway traffic jams for our safety.

Responding to a recent column concluding that "airline service has gone to hell," Harry March, who spent 40 years with Pan Am, writes -- with some passion -- about the "years of anguish" created by the 1978 deregulation act passed under President Carter.

''The public generally acclaimed the inauguration of deregulation, the new low-cost airlines, expanded service, {while} the larger airlines {were} being brought up smartly by the smaller 'new boys,''' March said. ''Wall Street had their darlings with their profitable new stock offerings,'' but ''sooner or later you have to pay the piper.''

"My only hope for the industry is that the Federal regulatory boards will come back and that the bottom-line executives with their cutthroat competitive instincts someday learn something about airplanes. Then, there is a remote possibility you'll find flying satisfactory."

As Walter Adams and James Brock noted in a New York Times op-ed piece, some pilots these days apparently can't find the right airport -- let alone the right runway. Passengers are frustrated by delays and multiple foul-ups along the way. But most of all, the potential for accidents is what worries us.

It will take time to unravel the specific cause of this week's Northwest Airlines crash in Detroit, the second-worst crash in American aviation history.

But since deregulation it is clear that less attention has been given to maintenance, surveillance and inspection of equipment. This appears to be a problem especially for the major merged lines, such as Northwest and Continental, where service personnel must learn to deal with equipment not immediately familiar to them.

Cathy Kartow of Anaheim, Calif., was a passenger on an American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles that had to take evasive action to avoid a collision, just a week before the incident involving Reagan's helicopter. Said Kartow later: "I was petrified. I don't know if I will fly again." There is every good reason for her and other passengers to be jittery. We know that near misses happen every day. But more happen than are reported because pilots and other airline personnel don't want to get "involved" if they can help it.

Adams and Brock contend that the airlines mess has arisen not because of deregulation, but because of "the Reagan administration's failure to enforce antitrust laws, and build up safety regulation and oversight -- all of which are needed for fair and constructive competition."

To me, that's a distinction without a difference: the important point is that the system is not working now, whereas it did work when the government was able to impose certain economic, safety and minimum-service requirements on the airlines.

Deregulation was supposed to promote healthy competition in the airline industry. In fact, deregulation has done just the reverse: a few big carriers dominate the country's major airports and routes, and control the availability of airport terminal gates. How many times have you landed safely (knock wood), only to sit on the airport tarmac, the plane burning off valuable fuel (you pay for it, eventually) while the pilot waits helplessly for a gate to clear?

As transportation law professor Paul Dempsey of the University of Denver says, what the public deserves -- and doesn't now get -- is safe air transportation. That means adequate, reliable service at a fair price, from an economically healthy industry.

It will take the reinstitution of government supervision -- whether you call it re-regulation or boosted safety or antitrust rules -- to ensure that the public gets that kind of airline service. There is, after all, something called the ''public interest'' -- which surely won't be protected if the airline moguls continue to call all the shots, guided only by the profit motive.