IF FREQUENT FLIERS had their way, every owner of a small plane would be given a transponder for Christmas. Transponders are altitude-reporting devices that are standard equipment on commercial jets; and they ought to be standard equipment on small planes, which are involved in the majority of near-collisions reported by pilots. As of Oct. 31, the number of near-collisions reported to the Federal Aviation Administration this year was 946, compared with with 705 for the same period last year. No wonder the airlines long sought a rule requiring that small planes carry transponders. The FAA's response has been too gradual, but at least some new regulations have taken effect this month. Evidence continues to point toward an even more widespread requirement that transponders be used.

The newest regulations require that small planes flying near 14 additional large airports be equipped with the devices. Until now, the rule had applied to small planes flying in congested areas around Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, San Francisco, Washington National and New York's LaGuardia and Kennedy airports. Airports just added are Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Honolulu, Houston, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Diego and Seattle. The new rule was prompted by a collision between an Aeromexico DC9 and a Piper Archer over Cerritos, Calif., on Aug. 31, 1986, which left 82 dead. The Piper was not equipped with a Mode C transponder, which transmits an altitude signal to controllers, though the plane was flying inside the controlled airspace that requires all planes to be equipped with the devices.

It isn't a matter of harassing owners and pilots of small aircraft, nor is every close call the fault of a pilot without a transponder turned on. Better airport equipment and more controllers are parts of any serious effort to reduce the number of near-collisions. But if pilots and others involved in general aviation want fair treatment, access and public understanding, they must be willing to accept requirements aimed at making flying for everyone still safer than it is.