I see that Hobart Rowen has gotten in early his annual criticism of airline deregulation generally and of me in particular {"The Unfriendly Skies of Deregulation," Jan. 3}.

Mr. Rowen wrote, "Kahn now blames the mess on the failure of the Reagan-Bush administration to enforce the antitrust laws." True, like Mr. Rowan, I have criticized that dereliction, among others, such as failure to expand airport capacity or to price access to it rationally. But I have also stated time and again that all the antitrust enforcement in the world would probably not have prevented the development and exertion by the major healthy airlines of the kinds of competitive advantages -- stemming, for example, from their hub-and-spoke operations -- that are now threatening to prove decisive.

Does that mean deregulation was a mistake? Just the opposite. The failure of the industry to realize the huge potential economies of hub-and-spoke operations under regulation testifies eloquently to the inefficiency of centralized government planning and the superiority of unconstrained profit-seeking in free markets.

Ever since we began to deregulate 14 years ago, Chicken Littles have been proclaiming that competition was going to kill itself off and leave us with pervasive monopoly. Meanwhile, according to the continuing, careful studies of Brookings Institution economists, deregulation has saved travelers about $100 billion since we began it, back in 1977. (Against these conclusions, Mr. Rowen prefers to cite the "calculations" by a professor at the University of Denver Law School, to the effect that fares are higher today than they would have been under regulation -- a calculation that any number of us could have shown him is not worth the paper it was written on.) I will be happy to settle for a very small percentage commission as a reward for my contribution to those savings.

This is the time, I agree, to ensure that competition survives. My own major candidate is a relaxation of the restrictions on foreign ownership of our carriers: that should play the same salutary role as foreign competition has played over the past decade in bringing discipline to such industries as automobiles and steel. ALFRED E. KAHN Ithaca, N.Y. The writer is Robert Julius Thorne Professor of Political Economy, Emeritus, at Cornell University and was chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, 1977-78.