THE Civil Aviation Department is faced with a dilemma. Either it allows more flights in and out of Kai Tak at times which will disturb the long-suffering residents of Kowloon City and Eastern District or it will stand accused of turning away valuable business. The territory's ageing airport is operating at capacity during peak hours. Unless more off-peak slots are opened up, airlines desperate to cash in on the profitable Hong Kong and South China traffic will soon be forced to try Shenzhen or the still-to-be-completed Macau airport instead. It is fashionable to believe it is better to lose a few flights ''temporarily'' to Hong Kong's competitors rather than impose any more noise pollution on Kai Tak's approaches. In the longer term, the opening of Chek Lap Kok in four years will bring the traffic back to Hong Kong. The short-term loss is a small price to pay for a decent environment. Yet there is a danger that the China traffic might be quite content to remain in Shenzhen after 1997. Moreover, some international carriers claim they would be only too happy to use Macau as a regional hub to avoid restrictions designed to protect Cathay Pacific. By the time Chek Lap Kok comes on stream, they may be reluctant to move back. Rather than give up the chance of extra traffic, Hong Kong should at least lift the partial restrictions on late evening flights. Residents already put up with 18 flights per hour at that time. Insisting on quiet aircraft throughout the evening would permit an extra 30 flights a day, with little extra noise-pollution and without encroaching on the midnight to 6.30 am curfew. It might even reduce the noise nuisance while allowing more convenient time-tabling for European destinations. Similar quiet-aircraft-only rules could be brought in during the off-peak period between 6.30 am and 8 am. Kai Tak is overcrowded and will soon be replaced. In the meantime, more can still be made of it.