My flight to Washington is finally in the air -- five hours late -- and the pilot, obviously vexed, is trying to explain things. There were storms up and down the East Coast, he says, and airports everywhere were closed. Still, he admits, nature was not the only culprit. After the storms cleared, the Federal Aviation Administration lost his flight plan -- ''a computer glitch,'' the pilot says. ''I guess it's more important to make the budget appear balanced than to give you people the service you deserve.''

''The service you deserve''? No one knows what that is anymore. The man sitting on my right, an engineer, says that in the last five days, nine flights have been canceled on him. Other passengers tell similar horror stories -- and our flight lost power while being pushed away from the gate. ''At least it happened on the ground,'' someone cracked.

The ancient world had seven wonders, some of them maybe mythical. The contemporary world has an undisputed one -- the U.S. airline system. More than 380 million passengers use it annually, among them the nation's most influential and powerful people. They likely include the next president, since all the candidates are now flying around the country. Like you and me, they get bumped and delayed. Their flights get canceled and they ride in planes that give passengers the willies. (If the tray table drops off in your lap, does that mean something about the plane's engines? Better not to wonder.)

Yet it seems even the powerful people in the country are incapable of getting an airline system that works. Until recently, everyone seemed to agree that deregulation -- a fancy word for chaos, it turns out -- was a wonderful thing. Get the government off the back of the airline industry, and the wonderful fruits of the free market would blossom. Prices would drop (they have), and competition, wonderful competition, would produce an equally wonderful airline system.

Yet, with the exception of lowered fares, none of this has happened. That most valued, if intangible, commodity -- confidence in the safety of the system -- has evaporated. Potentially serious errors by air-traffic controllers increased 50 percent from June 1986 to June of this year. Reports of near collisions are also up, and God only knows how many are not reported at all. When a Delta and a Continental flight nearly kissed over the Atlantic Ocean, the Delta pilot suggested a cover-up.

The Reagan administration, apparently infatuated with its own free-market rhetoric, has been incredibly slow in seeing to its responsibilities. Reagan's first contribution to air safety was the firing of 11,400 air-traffic controllers in 1981. The same year, the government started to reduce the number of FAA inspectors -- the people who are supposed to ensure that airlines follow safety and maintenance procedures. Their number shrank from 1,750 to 1,500. The FAA has recently moved to hire more inspectors and controllers and to upgrade its computer system. But neither the training of inspectors nor the installation of a computer system can be done quickly. Meanwhile, we all get on airplanes.

Alfred Kahn, the so-called father of airline deregulation in the Carter administration, seems to be on National Public Radio about once a week defending his child. He makes some good points. The delays and the crowds are symptoms of success. More people are using airplanes because flying has become cheaper. He also says inconvenience is not the same as danger -- that a packed plane is not necessarily a dangerous one.

All these things are true. But Kahn's brainchild has been trashed by the Reagan administration. Its insistence on limiting government, on paring it to the bone, came at a time when deregulation boosted air traffic that required even more controllers, technicians and inspectors. In the late 1970s, for instance, the FAA had more than 11,000 repair technicians to service its computer network. By 1986, there were only about 5,000 left. Little wonder, then, that the flight plan of my Boston-to-Washington flight disappeared into a maze of computer chips.

In many ways, that flight was atypical. It was much later than usual, it was more crowded than usual, and the irritation of the captain, a member of a normally unflappable bunch, was also unusual. But what made it usual was the shared conviction of the passengers, some of them hardy veterans of air travel, that the U.S. airline system just doesn't work anymore. If we had any doubt about that at the beginning of the flight, we didn't at the end when, after all the delays, Washington National Airport was closed. We landed in Baltimore