An Eastern Airlines Boeing 757 carrying 162 people from Atlanta touched down at National Airport yesterday afternoon, marking a major defeat for civic groups that have campaigned to bar the new generation, low-noise passenger jets from that airport.

The airliner was the first 757 to make a scheduled flight into National and arrived just hours after federal aviation officials confirmed that they had granted permission for the plane to use the airport.

Civic groups had fought to bar the 757 from National, arguing there is a serious question whether the plane can operate safely there, expressing doubts whether the 757 would be as quiet as the airlines claimed, and saying that the airlines needed a firm signal that the new generation of jetliners now coming into use should be sent to the underused Dulles International Airport -- not National.

The start of 757 service came as Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole was moving to lower the number of passengers allowed to use the federally owned National Airport below the current annual ceiling of 16 million. The airport is operating well below its current passenger limit and some of the 757's critics fear that the new planes, which can carry 185 passengers, will make for more, not less, congestion at National.

In a letter released yesterday, Federal Aviation Administration chief J. Lynn Helms rejected many of the civic groups' objections to the 757. Helms said in the letter to Eastern Airlines President Frank Borman that flight and simulator testing showed the twin-engined jet "meets all safety and operating criteria" for use at the airport, and authorized service to begin.

Eastern then scheduled a 757 for an Atlanta-Washington run, a route on which the airline mainly uses the smaller three-engine 727, which typically carries about 150 passengers. "We expect to maximize the use of the 757 airplane in here," said Eastern official Russ Upshaw.

Eastern is the only domestic airline currently operating the 757. Delta and Air Florida, which also operate at National, have ordered the $40 million plane for their fleets, according to a Boeing Co. spokesman.

Dole's proposals also would allow two more takeoffs or landings per hour by commuter planes and cancel daytime noise standards that the FAA proposed in 1981 in an effort to force the retirement of the airline's current noisy airplanes from National by the mid-1980s.

Those changes, unlike the decision to admit the 757, will be subject to a public hearing.

Clearance for the 757 and the proposed policy changes are widely seen in aviation circles as a package that gives civic groups a lowered passenger ceiling at National that they wanted, and airlines permission to use the 757 and other concessions that they sought. Federal officials have denied that the 757 decision was linked with the others.

Eastern officials and Helms maintained the 757 would be a "good neighbor" to people living along the National flight path. When the plane made a test flight into the airport on a recent Saturday, many people in the terminal and under its path said it seemed quieter than other jets.

The Coalition on Airport Problems, the main group leading the fight to control National, said the airplane's large size might make it unsafe for National's relatively short runways and overrun area and curved approach paths.

Even without safety concerns, coalition President Eric Bernthal said, the 757 should go to Dulles. "If the message they're trying to say is, Dulles is the airport of the future, then why are they letting new generation aircraft into National?" he asked. He said the coalition also opposed scrapping the daytime noise limits and wanted a phased reduction in traffic that would force airlines to move much of their traffic to Dulles.

With a wingspan of 125 feet, Eastern's 757 replaces the Boeing 727-200 as the largest plane using National.