The group that has emerged as the chief advocate for the flying public in the DC10 controversy began 19 years ago in New York as a modest travel club offering discount flights.

The Airline Passenger Association had a couple people in a small office to serve about 3,500 members when it opened in 1960.

But five years later it moved to Dallas and began an expansion and change of direction that eventually led to the role it enjoys today as a top airline traveler's consumer group, with 50,000 members in 49 countries.

In 1967, James E. Dunn II took over as president and managing director of the APA (the position he still hold today) and hastened to change its aim to provide services to members on safety, convenience, comfort and economy.

Dunn cut out the travel club aspect, and began direct service program of intervening for members in consumer problems, like lost baggage or improper charges.

"We intervene for our members in any problem they might have with an airline," said Hall Salfen, executive director of consumer affairs.

APA now provides - for a $17.50 annual membership fee - several direct services, including accident insurance, hotel and restaurant discounts, an airline newsletter and special baggage tags that give the traveler's name and his account number - avoiding the need to put an address on the baggage.

The group also annually surveys members about the most popular airline and the airline that should most be avoided.

For the past four years, American Airlines has been voted most popular, while last year's airline to avoid was Allegheny.

"That survey is really our most visible function to the public," Salfen said. He noted that the agency has kept a low public profile except for two previous cases: when it made public statements supporting airline deregulation and when it testified before Congress on problems of airline over-booking.

In the DC10 case, however, the association took a high-visibility stance, calling for an investigation of all DC10s almost immediately after the fatal Chicago crash.

There is one other public service performed by the APA that is worth noting. Every other month it recognizes three airline employes for outstanding service to members.

Last month's top winner was a Delta Airlines employe, who stopped along the expressway heading to Atlanta airport to help a troubled motorist.

When the employe dicovered the motorist was en route to catch a Delta flight, he drove to the airport in time to catch the flight, returned to arrange for the car to be taken to a garage and fixed and had the car brought to the airport in time for the passenger's return a few days later.

For this, the APA presented the employe with its service certificate and a $25 bond. CAPTION: Picture, A grounded United Airlines DC 10 sits on the runway at Baltimore Washington International Airport. By Larry Morris - The Washington Post