ARGUING that an "emergency" existed at National Airport, a group of airline executives asked the Department of Transportation last Friday to remove the hourly limit on flights there during the winter months. Fortunately, Secretary Goldschmidt was not moved by their plea. Some hard bargaining took place, and by Tuesday night many of the problems had been resolved with that hourly limit still intact. But the way in which this "emergency" came about indicates that National Airport's problems are likely to get much worse before they get any better.

More than a month ago, each airline submitted to an industry scheduling committee its request for a share of the 40 flights permitted in and out of the airport each hour. The total number of flights the airlines wanted to fly was, not surprisingly, larger than the number to which that airport has been limited for a decade. The scheduling committee could not resolve the conflicting requests and dumped the matter into Secretary Goldschmidt's lap. He resolved it by cutting back the number of flights operated by some established airlines to open up space for, among others, the new shuttle service to New York.

Some airlines won and some lost. Fair enough, you might think. But some airlines had already published December schedules based on their original requests and had begun selling tickets on flights that they had not yet received permission to operate. That, in the judgment of the airline executives, created an "emergency" sufficiently serious to wipe out National's flight-limitation rules.

It was fitting that this assertion was made to the Department of Transportation on Halloween. It was a cleverly designed trick-or-treat. Either throw out the rules and let us operate as often as we want at National, the airlines seemed to be saying, or we will bring down on you the wrath of those people to whom we have sold tickets on unauthorized flights we will have to cancel if you enforce the rules.

Even though the problem has now been settled, some airlines are preparing a legal challenge to the whole flight-limitation program. They contend the department has no authority to limit the number of flights except for safety reasons. If they should win, the number of hourly flights at National could never be reduced and might even increase.

The airlines clearly want to put as many flights and passengers as they can into National. Never mind that the terminal will be overcrowded, the ground transportation network swamped and noise pollution over the river increased. And never mind that Dulles Airport will become an even larger white elephant.

Secretary Goldschmidt is not going to be around much longer to attempt to protect this city from the onslaught of the airlines and their friends in Congress. We hope that before he leaves he puts in a good word on the community's behalf with his successor. He might tell the new secretary his life would be much simpler if his department did not operate two commerical airports. Perhaps the time has come for the federal government to get out of the airport business and let a local goverment authority handle the air transportation system here, just as similar authorities do almost everywhere else in the country.