Airline congestion and delays have reached near-crisis proportions. It's been estimated that the value of passengers' time lost in air delays amounts to about $1 billion per year and that the cost to the airlines themselves is another $2 billion. The subject is being discussed endlessly on TV talk shows, in newspaper editorials and at congressional hear-ings.

Yet all this discussion ignores a fundamental fact that, if recognized, could offer the one real hope for significant relief. Quite apart from operational considerations, the amount of airline flying is more than the public needs or can benefit from. The financial pages of any recent year repeatedly refer to airline "overcapacity." Just a few months ago, the airline newsletter of First Boston Corporation stated: "Airlines have a chronic excess capacity problem." And that comment had nothing to do with the issue of congestion and delay; it referred to the much more general oversupply relative to demand.

Comments from the Federal Aviation Administration and others imply that any effort to reduce flight volume would somehow be disloyal to the objectives of deregulation. Yet every principal sponsor of deregulation has recognized the tendency of airline competition to generate overscheduling, and these sponsors have unanimously deplored the resulting extra cost and waste of resources. In fact, the prime architect of deregulation -- Alfred Kahn -- stated in "The Economics of Regulation": ". . . where scheduling is purely duplicative and the traffic actually generated could be carried on fewer flights, the competition has produced only waste."

Dr. Kahn and his colleagues promised that deregulation would eliminate the pressure for overscheduling -- by substituting price competition for scheduling rivalry. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked that way.

There are a number of ways in which capacity could be reasonably and equitably reduced. But before these can be explored, it is first necessary to dispose of the impression that the level of flying is somehow sacrosanct and untouchable. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of air passengers would gladly vote for fewer duplicative flights if that would increase their chances of arriving on or close to schedule.

A reasonable reduction of flight volume would bring multiple benefits. Besides reducing congestion and delay (and the associated safety hazards), it would improve still-depressed airline finances. And it would conserve valuable fuel -- a factor of no small importance considering recent developments in the Persian Gulf. At recent levels of consumption, a 5 percent reduction in airline flying would save more than 600 million gallons of fuel a year.

MELVIN A. BRENNER

Rowayton, Conn.

The writer was vice president of American Airlines and TWA.

I find The Post's aviation reporting to be quite good, and I do not mean to be critical of it. However, readers may notice that after every serious aircraft accident, the papers carry a spate of reports of other incidents, such as engine failure and fires, landing-gear failure, cabin smoke, etc. The industry and pilots' organizations would have the public think that these incidents are coincidental and unusual, for fear of scaring off passengers. But the fact is that emergencies are handled very well week in and week out by the cockpit crews -- unless you are on the flight or read the local paper where an incident was reported, you will never know about it. The crew copes with the problem, which is why a small percentage of accidents are actually pure mechanical fail-ures.

There are incidents that would make your hair stand on end, incidents in which passengers are brought home safely on a flight that an "airline spokesman" reports as "routine."

Recent events are eroding public confidence in flight crews, and this should not be. I know of no other profession in which people have to put their jobs on the line several times a year and in which there is a very thorough oral exam as well as a demonstration of flying proficiency in all kinds of emergencies. There are no grades -- only "Satisfactory" or "Unsatisfactory," and "Unsatisfactory" is unacceptable. A stringent physical must be passed at least two times a year.

How many people go to work knowing that a mistake on their part could kill scores of people? Professional pilots are well aware of the dangers. If some kind of breakdown is causing the recent incidents, rest assured that it will be corrected.

JIM HALPIN

Alexandria

The writer is a retired airline pilot.