MOST PEOPLE WHO buckle in for a plane trip haven't heard of the "Montreal Protocols" and, because they will complete their trips safely, need not learn about this carefully negotiated treaty that would greatly improve a passengers' recourse to compensation in the event of an accident. After years of negotiation, study and support from the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, the treaty is now up for consideration by the Senate. It also is a critical part of a package of international agreements covering hijackings, aviation sabotage and other air services. With overwhelming approval of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the agreement deserves ratification.

Under the protocols, passengers in accidents would no longer have to endure lengthy (often up to six years) and costly litigation to prove fault of the airlines. There are incentives for the settlement of all disputes within six months, and--an important improvement--injured passengers would be able to secure payments for unlimited medical costs as incurred, without waiting for the conclusion of a trial.

Under current practice, international air passengers to and from the United States are limited to recovery of $75,000, unless they are able to prove willful misconduct on the part of the airlines. The protocols would raise the airline liability limit to about $120,000; yet another insurance pool would provide an additional $200,000. According to reviews of airline settlements and verdicts, more than 85 percent have fallen below the maximum amount provided in this agreement.

Supporters cite current litigation delays: three years after an American Airlines DC10 crash in Chicago, 42.6 percent of the cases remained unsettled (though this is a domestic rather than an international case); and some plaintiff lawyer fees in this litigation were reported to have been as high as $10,000 for an hour of actual work.

Who is opposed? The trial lawyers, of course. But the American Bar Association has strongly endorsed ratification as a critical part of U.S. leadership in international aviation matters. Other opponents claim that litigation helps keep the airlines aware of safety. Even if airlines didn't care enough about safety or its implications to their business success, there are government agencies, boards of inquiry, safety rules and procedures for determining causes of accidents. If these are insufficient, they should be stiffened. Threatening lawsuits is not the way to do it.