EVANSTON, ILL, JUNE 23 -- American Airlines President Robert L. Crandall said today that airline deregulation must take a back seat to safety and urged the government to eliminate flights at overcrowded airports.

In a speech interpreted as the first call from an airline for reregulation of the turbulent aviation industry, Crandall told a conference of transportation officials meeting here that safety has a cost and that tradeoffs are inevitable.

"It may not be possible to offer the lowest possible ticket price," Crandall said. "Nor may it be possible to be unyielding in our dedication to the principles of deregulation."

Crandall suggested that the Federal Aviation Administration determine capacity at each airport and divide it among military, commercial, and general aviation by selling landing slots to the highest bidder. "Now this is going to gore somebody's ox, and it's inconsistent with the 'open skies' principle of deregulation," Crandall said. "No matter who does the allocating or how it is handled, somebody is going to be unhappy with the results."

Apparent unhappiness at Crandall's proposal was expressed almost immediately by David R. Hinson, chairman of Midway Airlines, a small carrier based in Chicago.

"I'm not so sure I agree with Crandall's not-so-subtle call for regulation," Hinson said, noting that now that American flies to all 50 states it wants to adopt a form of reregulation that would increase its advantage over small carriers.

In his speech, Crandall criticized the FAA for failing to warn airlines in advance when it began a series of new moves this month designed to slow the flow of jetliners traversing crowded "sectors" of airspace. He said that move -- tested in the Chicago area -- delayed 79 American flights the first day.

"If there is too much traffic, we need to reduce it, but we need to do so on a planned, organized basis," he said.

The two-day conference here, sponsored by Northwestern University's transportation center, is focusing on safety and deregulation.

Earlier in the day, Sen. Brock Adams (D-Wash.) recounted the history of airline deregulation, which was put into place during the Carter administration when he was transportation secretary. Adams said that the bonds of regulation needed then to be loosened, but there was a big difference between "relaxing regulation and rejecting it."

Speaking specifically of the trucking industry, Adams warned that the danger to safety under deregulation stems from weak enforcement by the government of safety regulations because industry is under such tremendous pressure to reduce costs.