TO HEAR the nation's scheduled airlines tell it, National Airport has been the victim of excessive government regulation. They argue that limits on the number of permitted flights have stunted the growth of National and reduced the service it could otherwise provide, and that such regulation now stands in the way of full-fledged competition between the airlines. These -- to put it mildly -- extraordinary comments were filed on Tuesday with the Department of Transportation.

They are absurd and could thus be ignored if they did not constitute a part of the airlines' continuing effort to cram ever more passengers into National and even more jets into the space over the Potomac. The airlines want no restrictions on the number of commercial planes that operate out of National, no limit on the number of passengers its terminal is to absorb, and no outer-limit cities from which flights into National are barred. " . . . [Ten] years of stunted growth . . . are enough," the airlines told DOT.Stunted growth? That's some stunt. In the 10 years the airlines cite, National's passenger load increased by a greater number of passengers than the total now handled by Dullles.

National's future, the airlines say, is "essentially a problem to be solved in the marketplace," just as the problems of other airports are resolved there. But if National were on an equal footing with the country's other commercial airports -- owned by local governments instead of by the Federal Aviation Administration -- its runways would have been replaced by housing and parks and factories long ago.

Recognizing that they may not get National thrown wide open to air traffic, the airlines have suggested that the FAA increase the number of jet flights allowed during peak hours (2 p.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and Sundays); ignore, in establishing passenger limits, those people who only change planes; and discount in those same limits the passengers who use Metro. In other words, the FAA shouldn't have to worry about any environmental impact other than that of passengers who go to National by automobile. Noise and dirt are irrelevant.

The airlines have little interest in using Dulles or selling it to their customers so long as National is available. They insist that National must remain this city's major airport, even going so far as to call it "the gateway to the nation's capital," a high-flown phrase applied to Dulles when it was still on the drawing board. And they believe that the interests of people who live near National should always be subordinated to the desire of air travelers for quick access to downtown Wasington and the congressional office buildings. Those beliefs die hard -- but die they must, if this metropolitan area is ever to have a rational air transportation plan and if the city is ever to have a modicum of relief from its overhead din.