IT'S NOT cleared for takeoff by the White House, but there's a proposal on the runway for a federal law to reduce airport noise around the country by requiring the gradual introduction of quieter aircraft. The new chief of the Federal Aviation Administration, Allan McArtor, says his agency is drafting legislation to establish a "national noise policy" that would supersede a crazy-quilt pattern of local restrictions on the types of planes allowed into airports. Exactly what will or won't be prescribed in this proposal when it emerges could be the difference between a measure that's dead on arrival and one that could bring relief to noise-hammered householders as well as airlines trying to make decisions on aircraft purchases.

The prospect of federal stipulations will produce some crocodilian wailing by airline officials. But while publicly protesting this kind of regulation by the federal government, they may welcome an order that would make the entire industry move to the newer aircraft by dates certain. As Mr. McArtor points out, "The value of a 727 depends on how long it will be able to fly." The new proposal would establish a nationwide schedule for gradual retirement of the older, louder "Stage 2" airplanes (such as the 727) and for replacements with newer, quieter "Stage 3" planes (such as the Boeing 757 and the McDonnell Douglas MD80).

There's a big question for local airport authorities, including the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which took over operations at National and Dulles from the federal government. Would the new legislation limit a local authority's powers to restrict aircraft types to certain hours, such as the curfew at National that generally bans landings and takeoffs above certain decibel levels from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.? Though the B-757 and the MD80 meet this noise limit, increased uses of these aircraft in the restricted hours have generated complaints from local residents.

Until someone invents a "Stage X" plane that doesn't make a peep, the increased use of any plane is going to mean more noise at some decibel level -- and that's beyond the control of either Uncle Sam or the locals. But in approaching this issue with an attempt to bring down noise and to bring in the new planes, the FAA may at least offer a better way to make an inevitable transition.