"The chief spokesman for the airline industry said today . . . 'Failure to modernize air traffic control will bring growing congestion and delay for airline passengers.' "

Sound like something out of today's headlines? The quotation comes from a Washington Star article of June 5, 1968. The spokesman was a former president of the Air Transport Association, Stuart G. Tipton.

Warnings of undercapacity in airports and in the air traffic control system are indeed an old theme, and the public is now getting the message loud and clear. The U.S. air carriers are in business to meet the demands of the flying public. In recent years they have significantly increased their fleet and ground resources to meet that demand. But growth in the other two elements of the system -- airports and air traffic control -- has not kept pace. Now, after two decades of warnings, we have the real makings of an air travel "capacity crisis" in this country.

And the issue is not only one of delays and inconvenience to the public. There is also the issue of safety.

Increased airport and airways capacity can ensure the safe accommodation of growing air traffic. In spite of the terrible tragedy in Detroit, air transportation is safe. The industry's recent safety record -- almost two years and more than 12 million flights without a single passenger fatality until the accident on Aug. 16 -- is remarkable.

But airline safety requires a constant redoubling of efforts. The airlines are doing that. One example: Many assume that deregulation has resulted in cutting corners on maintenance. But airline expenditures on maintenance have increased by 55 percent in the past five years. Last year, the airlines spent $5.5 billion on maintenance -- an increase of more than $500 million from the previous year.

Yet safety is a shared responsibility. Increasing capacity of the air transport system -- with more air traffic controllers and more state-of-the-art equipment -- is another means of improving safety as well as the best long-range approach to reducing delays. But in the long run it does little good for the airlines to expand their capacity if airport and air traffic control capacity does not increase commensurately. And that is precisely the root cause of today's under-capacity problem.

Existing airports need more runways and improvements to current runways. Some new airports must be built. The Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control system must be modernized and run more efficiently.

Senate aviation subcommittee Chairman Wendell Ford (along with Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd and Sens. Nancy Kassebaum and Frank Lautenberg) have introduced legislation to make the FAA an independent agency and to provide for the appointment of the administrator to a fixed term. In addition, Sens. Daniel Inouye and Ted Stevens have introduced separate legislation that would create a federal corporation to manage the nation's air space.

More is needed. The Aviation Trust Fund should be taken "off budget" so that more of the fund's $6 billion unobligated surplus -- money that the public has already paid in the form of ticket and cargo taxes -- can be spent to improve the system.

Until capacity can be increased, interim steps are being taken. But such steps merely allow us to cope a little while longer within an inadequate system.

The writer is president of the Air Transport Association.