Although the federal government is unable to successfully attack the budget deficit, other huge expenditures are waiting in the wings - projects that have been delayed or put off. But the time is approaching when they must be faced.

One of these problems is the inability of airports in major cities to keep up with growing air traffic. Yet Congress has sat on the federal airport trust fund and refused to use the billions in the fund, preferring instead - as it does with the Social Security trust fund - to use the money for current budget expenses, thus making the deficit look smaller.In 1987, each of the nation's 21 major airports experienced more than 20,000 hours of flight delays. By 1997, nearly 40 airports could be at or beyond that level and some, like Chicago, Atlanta and Denver, could have 100,000 hours of delays each year.

Current delays arise from the air transport system trying to carry 1.3 million passengers a day. Yet the number is expected to reach 2.5 million a day shortly after the year 2000. Unless the system is expanded, congestion and frustration will reach impossible levels in another decade.

This is not just a problem of federal dollars, however. Airports are financed by a combination of federal, state, local and private money, and all are going to feel the pocketbook pinch.

A study done for the Federal Aviation Administration shows that by the year 2020, some $50 billion to $100 billion in airport expansion will be needed just to keep congestion and delay at levels where they can be tolerated. Given the years of planning and construction on a single project, efforts must be undertaken now to deal with the situation.

The FAA study recommends construction of 10 new major airports, expansion at 50 existing airports, development of secondary hubs at 28 under-utilized airports, manufacture of 1,000-passenger aircraft, and new surface transport systems to absorb shorter traffic of 200-500 miles.

All levels of American government live from hand to mouth, from year to year and from crisis to crisis without much planning ahead to avoid future problems.

That is true with the economy, with the deficit, with energy policy, with future growth and needs. And it is true with the air transport system. How much longer does the nation think it can avoid dealing with the consequences?