While the average American still spends less than one-tenth as much on cut flowers as the average European, the market is expected to double by the turn of the century, air cargo officials forecast. And New Orleans International Airport intends to be at the forefront in handling the growing number of imported flowers from Central America.

The average Scandinavian - one of the biggest flower buyers in the world - spends some $120 annually on cut flowers. That compares with less than $12 for the average American.But the air shipment of cut flowers, which was barely recognizable as a market force five years ago, has blossomed into a $4 billion-a-year retail industry today, said Larry Johnson, air cargo manager at New Orleans International Airport.

New Orleans' Moisant Airport expects to complete a new $12 million cargo facility by the end of next year, which will provide a huge marshaling apron and a 110,000-square-foot warehouse for the airport's air cargo carriers to Central America. The facility also will include a 20,000-square-foot refrigerated storage space to accommodate the airport's growing imports of cut flowers from Guatemala and Mexico.

New Orleans air cargo officials would like to duplicate the success of Orlando in siphoning cut-flower imports from Europe and Central America that traditionally have gone through Miami. While the majority of cut flowers today still are brought into the country by florists, mass-marketers such as grocery chains are developing a heavy demand for the imports.

Orlando International Airport is scheduled to open soon with a private venture that replicates the flower auction in the Netherlands. The airport serves as landlord for the event.

While nearly half of all the flowers imported into the United States come

from Europe, Latin America is fast becoming a stiff competitor to the Dutch and other big producers.

While the Netherlands manages to maintain the lion's share of cut-flower exports with 59 percent of the world market, Colombia ranks second with 10 percent, followed by Italy with 7 percent and Spain with 2 percent.

Odette Fodor, public relations manager for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, said KLM's cargo division ships more than 7,000 tons of flowers per year from Holland to markets on six continents.

"Since 1984, KLM flower transport on the North Atlantic route has grown by an average of 32 percent a year," she said.

Central American flower growers are beginning to cut into that market with their own roses, chrysanthemum and carnations grown in the cool, high valleys of Central and South America, said New Orleans International Airport's Mr. Johnson.

Miami has been a natural port of entry for Latin flower growers for two reasons: its proximity and its backhaul cargoes - car parts, computers and telecommunications equipment.

New Orleans is seeking to steal Miami's market share by selling itself as a better distribution site for flowers than Miami because it is more centrally located to inland destinations.

"New Orleans is 1,000 miles closer than Miami to the important Kansas City-Chicago-Detroit population belt," Mr. Johnson said. "The extra distance can mean up to two more days' travel time by truck, an important consideration in shelf-life."

Flowers are but one aspect of a rebirth of New Orleans' air cargo business, which has made a dramatic comeback after nearly disappearing in the middle 1980s. Through September of this year, the airport handled nearly 59,000 tons of air cargo, a 3 percent increase over the first three quarters of 1992.

Air cargo has been growing at the airport for the past three years, rising from some 69,000 tons in 1990 to more than 78,000 tons last year, Mr. Johnson said.

The first weekend of this month, the air cargo terminal was jammed with crates of goose liver, organically grown potatoes, slabs of wild boar meat,

truffle oil and similar exotic edibles.

The delicacies were flown in for a gathering of eight of the country's top restaurant chefs at a culinary spectacular.

While New Orleans is actively pursuing air cargo imports in perishables such as cut flowers and baby vegetables from Latin producers, the airport cannot really begin to sell itself until its new air cargo facility is completed a year from now. The new facility is being built by and will be managed by Avia Development Group, a third-party developer.

The new cargo unit will house two buildings: One will be on the edge of a new apron with a large turnaround area, and a second building will act as a receiving station for truck loadings and unloadings.

The new buildings are scheduled to be ready in June for the International Air Cargo Conference, which the city is hosting.

"We're really working hard to improve our facilities and boost volume," he said.