The FAA police force at National and Dulles International airports -- responsible for ensuring the safety of more than 50,000 ticketed passengers each day -- is understaffed, inexperienced and suffering severe morale problems, according to police officers, government officials and a recent General Accounting Office report.

With recent terrorist attacks at airports in Rome and Vienna, new demands have been placed on airport security forces in the United States. But this week there were 39 vacancies in the police staff that guards Dulles and National, said Federal Aviation Administration officials. Currently there are 100 active officers.

FAA officials and congressional sources agree that low pay has made it difficult to keep a qualified staff up to its appropriate level, but the FAA denies that there is any security problem at either airport.

"For years and years we have had such a bad pay scale that we just can't keep those jobs filled . . . . We have said it so long we sound like a broken record," said James A. Wilding, director of the FAA's Metropolitan Washington Airports organization that operates Dulles and National. "But I would really like to make a sharp distinction between that frustration and anything I believe could be called a security problem. We feel very strongly about the security posture of these two airports."

Others, however, say that without a larger police presence, the FAA cannot adequately protect two of America's most prominent airports -- facilities used daily by dignitaries.

Under FAA regulations, airlines handle screening of passengers and carry-on luggage at all airports in the country. But the airport operator -- it is usually a city but in the case of Dulles and National it is the FAA -- is responsible for other security measures, such as preventing people from gaining access to parked planes, enforcing laws and arresting people suspected of committing crimes.

A 1983 letter from four prominent members of Congress asked the GAO to investigate pay and staffing levels at the two airports because "we have received information indicating that public safety at National and Dulles airports is threatened by an underpaid, understaffed and overworked police force serving those airports."

The FAA and its critics agree that more than a year after that request was made and at a time when new demands are being made on airport security forces, pay and staffing problems for FAA police officers have persisted.

"When you talk about Dulles and National you are talking about a tragedy that is just waiting to happen," said Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.), who said last week he soon will introduce legislation that would exempt the FAA police from budget cuts mandated by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced budget act. "Those airports have such high public visibility it is just outrageous that we allow this to continue."

Biaggi and others say the reason the FAA cannot recruit and retain an adequate force is that police officers are paid far less than they would receive in any neighboring jurisdiction. A 1985 GAO report also found that FAA police officers were paid less than members of seven other federal police forces with officers in the Washington area.

"You've got people guarding monkeys and snakes that make more money than we do," said Robert Tyng, a sergeant who has worked for the FAA for 13 years and now earns an annual base salary of $19,606. "The government looks at National Airport like it was a quiet little out of the way place where nothing happens. But the 1940s are over."

In 1985, the minimum starting salary for an FAA police officer was $14,298. By comparison, the starting pay for an officer with the National Zoological police was $17,221. In the nearby city of Alexandria, minimum starting pay for a new police recruit is $20,262.

Last fall, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole requested a pay increase of more than 10 percent across the board for FAA police officers.

The Office of Personnel Management cut the request, saying FAA police are not underpaid, but that other federal police officers are paid too much.

OPM has agreed to increase pay for low-ranking officers between 6 and 10 percent in the coming fiscal year. But as the GAO report points out, that will not nearly keep pace with other area police forces.

Interviews with many current officers at both airports confirm a finding of the GAO report: Morale among FAA police is poor. "Of 95 officers interviewed for the report, 76 percent said morale was "very low," 22 percent said it was "low," and 2 percent said they were "uncertain." No officer interviewed for the GAO report or by The Washington Post said morale on the force was good.

To compensate for the staff shortages, officers have been working vast amounts of overtime. In 1985, the police at the two airports earned almost $900,000 in overtime compensation, according to the FAA.

"We do not like to have people work that kind of overtime," said Wilding. "Those are nerve-racking jobs and we don't want people working double shifts. Right now, it seems the lesser of available evils to us."

Although many of the officers welcome the extra income, they say that in the long run that kind of overtime may cause more harm than good.

An incident last week at National frightened and angered several officers. A man was about to board a People's Express flight to Newark when a search of his carry-on luggage made officers gasp.

"It looked exactly like a bomb, it had fake dynamite, a clock and wires," said Lt. Alan Fahey, a day shift supervisor with the FAA police at National. "We were shocked and scared. We are spread so thin. This time it was a sick joke. Next time it won't be."

The man was arrested and later released.

"It's a very demanding job," said Lt. Thomas Holderness. "And then some jerk comes along with a wooden bomb. There is a feeling that something bad is going to happen.

"At Dulles, we are responsible for protecting about 12,000 acres. We also patrol many of the roads that come toward the airport. We want to do our job well, but it's hard when you work every day of your life. I have men who practically live on food stamps working at Dulles."

The number of passengers using Dulles has grown more than 100 percent in the past year and arrests there have increased as well. In 1985, there were 200 arrests at National and 100 at Dulles, according to rough figures kept by the police. Sixty-two people were charged with weapons violations at National in 1985. Statistics for Dulles are not yet available from the FAA.

There were 1,750 reports of incidents requiring FAA police investigation at the two airports in 1985, according to the station commander at National.

The FAA officers, who undergo eight weeks of training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in southeast Georgia, are armed with .38 caliber revolvers.

"These are like little towns with transient populations," said Lt. Fahey. "Robbery, murder, theft and drugs. If you have it in America aren't you going to have it at the airport?"

"I know it sounds bad asking for more money," said one veteran of the FAA police at National Airport. "But we need it and if we don't get it we are not going to be able to protect the people who go through this terminal. I enjoy my job, but every once in a while I ask myself how much longer I can let this happen."