Even Imelda goes first class.

By now it ought to be clear that Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, between them, control 75 percent of the world's known reserves of greed. By comparison, Baby Doc Duvalier was strictly a junior varsity burglar. But he, like Marcos, undoubtedly managed to rob his people of a lot of hope and some of their future.

In spite of their avarice approaching treason, these despots were transported safely out of power and into exile on U.S. Air Force transport planes known as C-141s. A second C-141 was dispatched to Manila to pick up the luggage and assorted personal property that the Marcoses had hastily left behind. The argu- ment for providing U.S. military planes to such people as Marcos and Duvalier is that by doing so we may help avoid carnage. It is a reasonable argument.

But there is no reasonable case to be made for the U.S. government's policy of transporting U.S. servicemen not in U.S. Air Force C-141s, but in private contract charters that are, according to congressional testimony and investigations, unsafe. The question that the administration, beginning with the commander-in-chief, must answer is this: How can you possibly justify paying more attention to the safe passage of tyrants than you do to the transportation of those Americans who defend our country and freedom around the world?

Do you remember Arrow Airlines? That was the carrier on which 248 American soldiers of the famed 101st Airborne met a fiery death last Dec. 12 in Newfoundland. According to congressional testimony from two former Arrow pilots, that airline pushed pilots and crews to the point of exhaustion and conducted aircraft maintenance that was "marginal" and "minimal." Of the plane that did crash, a mechanic who had worked on it testified: "I have never seen an airplane in that shape." The pilots spoke of crews so overworked that members actually fell asleep in the cabin and in the cockpit, of a flight attendant having to wake up a dozing pilot -- in flight.

But, according to a Government Accounting Office study commissioned by House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Charles Bennett (D- Fla.), Arrow was not alone. In April 1984, according to GAO investigators, Air Resorts, another charter carrier, was recommended for shutdown by a Federal Aviation Administration inspection team that documented serious safety violations. The next day, Air Resorts agreed to ground its civilian fleet, but was permitted to continue carrying American military personnel, some 2,479 in the month of May alone.

South Pacific Island Airways (SPIA), according to the GAO study, was another case. An SPIA plane crashed because of a rusty elevator cable, killing one person. This crash occurred two months after the FAA had recommended, because of serious violations of regulations, immediate suspension of SPIA's permit. Four times, in violation of FAA standards, SPIA flew a polar route from Alaska to the Netherlands. While carrying United Nations peacekeeping troops, an SPIA aircraft strayed to within 50 miles of Soviet airspace and, but for the fortuitous interception by a Norwegian Air Force jet, might have provoked another KAL 007 disaster.

Thanks to the work of three House Armed Services Committee members -- Reps. Bennett, Kentucky Republican Larry Hopkins, and Alabama Democrat Bill Nichols, all three of whom are veterans -- the Pentagon is being forced to explain a policy that can be described as pernicious indifference.

One plausible explanation for an administration policy that provides discredited despots with safe U.S. Air Force jets and orders American troopers onto unsafe airlines is that Marcos, for instance, had friends in high places. He and Imelda had entertained Cabinet officers and congressmen. Marcos had "access." The soldiers of the 101st Airborne and the families who mourn their loss do not have "access" to senators and statesmen. The soldiers' families don't give big PAC contributions, and they don't give fancy dinner parties. They just give their sons and brothers to defend our country.

This administration and its organized opposition continue to subscribe to the morally flawed premise that the rich and the smart have no obligation to defend the nation. As long as our nation is defended by the sons of cabinet-makers instead of the sons of Cabinet members, must our fighting men and women be sentenced to fly in planes not good enough for Imelda's shoes, Mr. President?

Thank you, Reps. Bennett, Hopkins and Nichols, for demanding an answer.