NOW COMES the ultimate in air traffic stories, direct from the skies above Cape Canaveral. On Thursday, the mighty space shuttle Discovery had to delay its maiden-voyage liftoff by seven minutes because there was a twin-engine private plane circling around on what officials said would have been a collision course. Now even the astronauts know how it feels to be held up in traffic, waiting for takeoff. There, as at too many of the larger commercial airports around the country, delays are the name of the game; and most are beyond the control of the airlines or their crews. The problem is heavy traffic and what to do to keep it moving.

It is not a question purely of regulation versus deregulation. Deregulation does lead to competitive scheduling, which means that all sorts of airlines want to serve the most heavily traveled routes at the most popular travel times and the most attractive prices. That makes sense. But airports, like even the best freeways, can take only so much at rush hour. The same is true of the air controllers, leaving aside for the moment any effects of the strike and its aftermath.

Related to this is the question of how general aviation -- those smaller private planes -- should be allowed to mix in the takeoff and landing patterns at the busiest airports. There are still other airports around the country where dozens of planes take off and land each day without an air traffic controller to guide them or a system that might "inconvenience" pilots and passengers for reasons of safety.

It is not a matter merely of adding controllers and control systems, either. Research and development of newer, more sophisticated control systems can and should continue; and there is money for it in the aviation trust fund, which is financed through an 8 percent levy on every commercial ticket purchased. Prudent air traffic management, as well as sound public policy, call for a stronger effort before "rush hour" gets any worse.