A proposal by the Clinton administration to semi-privatize air traffic controllers may be the only way to solve many of the problems that plague air travel - problems of which most travelers are unaware.

The plan would turn the traffic-control system into a government-owned corporation - one probably run entirely on user fees and controlled by an independent board. Congress would have only limited involvement. This idea was forwarded as a recommendation from the National Commission to Ensure a Strong Competitive Airline Industry and received presidential endorsement last week.The current system, operated by the Federal Aviation Administration, is woefully behind in obtaining modern equipment - a complaint that hasn't been made publicly since an ill-fated strike more than a decade ago. The budget comes from Congress, which generally gives the FAA less money to spend than it collects in fees. The system is further handcuffed by civil-service rules that discourage putting the right people in the right jobs for the right reasons. As a result, air traffic in large cities often is forced to wait while controllers try to catch up with all the work. These and other problems likely are to blame for a 20 percent drop between 1988 and 1992 in the number of hours the average airline flies daily.

If it is set up correctly, a government-owned corporation would be free from these problems. The budget probably would be higher. The right people could be hired for the right jobs. Controllers at the busiest airports could be paid more than those at smaller airports.

But to set it up correctly, government must be certain the FAA's standards for aircraft, pilots and controllers continue to be maintained and enforced. It also must make sure Congress has as little to do with the daily operations as possible. Other than ensuring fairness and safety, the government should step back and let the corporation run its own affairs. A better solution might be for the government to completely privatize the FAA, ensuring as little government interference as possible.

Governments should privatize wherever it is possible to earn a profit without hurting the public. The FAA plan appears to do that and to be free from any major drawbacks.