The House, grappling for the first time with the controversial issue of "passive smoking," last night narrowly approved a ban on smoking on most U.S. commercial airline flights.

On a 198-to-193 vote that capped an emotional debate, a sharply divided House approved an amendment to the $10.9 billion Transportation Department appropriations bill that effectively bars smoking on flights of two hours or less.

The amendment, sponsored by Reps. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), cuts off airport improvement funds from any facility that serves flights of two hours or less on which smoking is permitted. If approved by the Senate, it will affect about 80 percent of U.S. domestic flights.

The measure, which many expected would be defeated, faces a more difficult future in the Senate.

Durbin last night said the vote is a milestone in the movement asserting the right of nonsmokers to a clean indoor environment.

"It's very important," said Durbin, who said he began yesterday's battle doubtful that he could muster enough votes for the measure to pass. "It's the first time a legislative body on a national level has endorsed the validity" of studies showing the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, he said.

Durbin said the amendment prevailed because the often contentious debate pitted personal testimonials to the harmful effects of smoking against arguments that were largely procedural.

Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.), for example, argued for the amendment by showing a breathing aid he uses in the presence of smokers because of an allergic reaction to tobacco smoke.

By contrast, opponents, in addition to claiming the ban would place an administrative burden on airports, based most of their arguments on grounds that it is inappropriate to legislate broad policy on an appropriations bill without holding extensive public hearings.

After approving the smoking ban, the House swiftly gave final approval, 282 to 108, to the bill, making appropriations for the Department of Transportation for fiscal 1988. It earlier had voted to cut by $222 million the $11.1 billion bill reported out by the Appropriations Committee.

Because the measure exceeds the administration's proposal by $2.4 billion -- mostly in mass transit and Amtrak funding -- the Office of Management and Budget has said it would urge a presidential veto.

The bill provides $2.2 billion for mass transit, including $197 million for continued construction of the Washington-area Metro subway system.

The bill also allots $602 million to Amtrak a subsidy the administration had asked be terminated.

The House also accepted a $1.4 million increase in funding for the National Transportation Safety Board to improve the agency's investigation of near-collisions and mid-air collisions.

The legislation provides $4.5 billion in funding for the FAA, and instructs the transportation department to employ 15,900 air traffic controllers by Sept. 30, 1988.