WHEN THE OFFICIAL jet carrying the vice president of the United States comes dangerously close to collisions with two small planes in less than three weeks, old questions about air safety take on new urgency. These near-misses do happen quite often, if you consider 286 of them last year to be a significant number. While that total is down considerably from the 586 recorded in 1980, it still puts a little fear into flying. It also points to the circumstance common to both of Mr. Bush's close calls: light planes in the air. According to a report just issued by the Federal Aviation Administration, 92 percent of near-collisions involve such light aircraft.

There are apparent differences in what happened in each of the Air Force Two incidents, though both point to a need for more safet precautions. On Sunday, Sept. 30, in the Cleveland area, the Air Force plane and a smaller aircraft passed within three-fourths of a mile horizontally and 500 feet vertically, according to the FAA. Standards require that planes be five miles and 1,000 feet apart. That incident was classified as an apparent air-traffic control "operational error."

On Thursday, near Seattle, it apparently was a failure on the part of single-engine-plane pilot to notice the approaching jet, FAA sources reported. In this case, an alert air-traffic controller helped avert a collision with a warning to Air Force Two.

Communications are key. The small plane was equipped with a transponder, which signaled its location -- but not its altitude -- to a controller's radar screen. At that location there is no requirement that a private pilot communicate with controllers or maintain a set distance from other planes.

Letting small-business and pleasure aircraft dart around the same air space as the big jets is risky enoug, but letting them do so without contact with controllers and complete equipment is unnecessarily dangerous. The fact that these two incidents put the vice president in danger should not make them that different from others involving lesser-known people. What it could -- and should -- do is focus more attention on these dangers and prompt corrective action.