Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, in an attempt to clear the troubled skies over aviation labor, instead created a storm last week when he granted the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) there most fervent wish: a restudy of the question of how many pilots it takes to fly an airplane.

Industry and government officials later agreed that, while Lewis might temporarily have purchased some labor peace, the costs could be high in three areas:

The continuing competitiveness of U.S.-manufactured airplanes in the world market, with particular reference to the beleaguered McDonnell Douglas Corporations's new DC9-Super 80.

The ability to attract and retain the kind of top-quality technical staff everyone agrees the Federal Aviation Administration -- part of Lewis' department -- desperately needs.

The danger that Lewis unintentionally sent a message to the air traffic controllers that he is a pushover on labor issues. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) and FAA officials began negotiations last week on a new contract to replace one that expires March 15, and the controllers are clearly prepared to strike, albeit illegally.

What Lewis did to set off the storm was promise ALPA president J. J. O'Donnell that a presidential commission would review the question of whether a two-person cockpit provides the same degree of safety as a three-person cockpit. In exchange, Lewis obtained a pledge that the pilots, who are pushing for a three-pilot cockpit, will not stage a potentially crippling nationwide walkout March 2. This action would eliminate the possibility that pilots and air traffic controllers would be on strike at the same time.

Lewis also is known to feel that, by appearing to be reasonable, he took a big step toward restoring trust and confidence to what had become a testy adversarial relationship between pilots and controllers on the one hand and the FAA -- under former administrator Langhorne M. Bond -- on the other.

Lewis said the presidential commission would decide the issue within 120 days. If that deadline is met, it would appear to remove any threat that haggling would delay governmental approval, regardless of crew size, for Boeing's two new airplanes, the 757 and 767.

Then Lewis kicked McDonnell Douglas in the teeth by reopening the question of crew size for the DC9-Super 80, a plane that had already received the airworthiness certificate, the federal government's official seal of approval, with just two pilots in the cockpit.

"We've got 22 airplanes to deliver between now and June," an exasperated Douglas official said. "What the hell do they want us to do? Recall those airplanes and put in a high chair?"

Daniel F. May, president of Republic Airlines, has Super 80s on order. "I'm sure our pilots would sign with [two-person] crews, except ALPA would not permit it," May said in a December interview. ". . . ALPA is saying the cockpit should be expanded . . . so the third [person] would have a few switches to throw. To do that we would have to take five seats out of the airplane. That would cost $1 million to $2 million per plane and then the plane would be less productive . . . Everybody knows it's a featherbedding issue, not a safety issue."

It is known that before Lewis announced his decision, he consulted with Paul Ignatius, president of the Air Transport Association of America, the airline lobby, and with T.A. "T" Wilson, chairman and chief executive of Boeing. However, he personally did not reach top McDonnell Douglas officials before announcing the decision, but met with them Friday in Washington.

Older DC9s, Boeing 737s and British Aerospace BAC 111s have been flown for years with two-person cockpits and their safety record is indistinguishable statistically from that of planes requiring three-person crews. So why, Lewis was asked, did he reopen the question of the safety of a two-person crew for the Super 80 and not reopen it for airplanes already certified with two-person crews?

"It was the only one that continues to be a bone of contention," Lewis said. ". . . The technology of this plane is comparable with the technology of 757 and 767. The people who were competent technically gave me this information."

It is true that substantial new automation has been introduced into the Super 80 cockpit, and will be used in the Boeing 757 and 767. The manufacturers claim that this reduces the workload substantially; ALPA claims that it might increase workload or stress factors.

It is not known which technically competent persons Lewis consulted, but he did not meet face to face with the FAA crew that spent much of last summer in Long Beach, Cal., wrestling with the Super 80 and its certification. Morale in that department was low this week, although there is confidence there as at Douglas that the two-person crew decision will be reaffirmed by any technically qualified, fair-minded panel.

"This in no way means that the report that was passed out on [the Super 80] was not valid," Lewis said. "The president was concerned that, without an FAA administrator or a deputy administrator, to make judgments in this area when we were really coming into a whole generation of new aircraft" would be careless.

"If the right decision was made the first time, it will be reached the second time," he said.

Meanwhile, Douglas has 100 firm orders for the Super-80, with 11 in service at PSA-Pacific Southwest Airlines on the West Coast and with airlines in Switzerland, Austria and Japan. John Brizendine, president of the Douglas Aircraft Co., said in an interview last fall that the long certification fight for the Super 80 -- a fight lengthened by ALPA logrolling for the sanctity of a three-person crew -- had created some problems for Douglas.

"I had one airline that sent a wire that said [the delay in certification] is just one more indication that your customers overseas may have to look elsewhere for their future products because they can't rely on the United States any more to do what you promise . . .," Brizendine said. "We have not really communicated as well as we should have to the Congrss, the administration, the public and the press the value of our industry to the nation's well-being and economy."

U.S. airplane sales overseas have been one of the bright spots in the balance of trade picture, with almost 80 percent of the free world's jet fleet coming from U.S. manufacturers. Now, however, there is increasingly vigorous competition from the Airbus produced by a European consortium. The Japanese also are talking about producing major jet transports.

Lewis has not had much time or help to catch up on the intracacies of these issues. He also has had to wrestle with auto industry problems, regulations such as airbags and the budget. An FAA administrator has not even been nominated, although a Reagan transition report called that DOT job second in importance only to the secretary.

Lewis apparently felt that he had to clear the air on how the FAA/DOT would deal with labor, and the ALPA problem gave him an early opportunity. "The previous administration had a very different attitude," a senior DOT official said. "[Former FAA administrator] Bond walked into the room ready to fight. The secretary didn't want to continue that image."

Bond refused to call ALPA an association, which it prefers, and referred to it always as "the pilots' union," which it is. When he awarded the Super 80 its airworthiness certificate, he published a paper on crew size entitled "Less is More." It contained paragraph after paragraph of pilot-irritating one-liners, such as "Since we all agree that two pilots are safer than one, then three pilots must be safer than two . . . If this logic were followed with regard to aspirin tablets, we would all be dead."

Bond himself said recently that one reason he hated to leave the FAA was because he would miss the negotiations with PATCO. Controllers, Bond said, "are very well paid."

"Every time that s.o.b. opened his mouth, we gained 3 percent on a strike vote," said David Trick, PATCO's director of operations.

Lewis is obviously taking a different approach. "I would hope we would go into [PATCO negotiations] with a spirit of good faith," he said. "It's a lot easier to resolve it that way . . . You don't rattle the sword until you intend to use it."

Only time will tell whether the Lewis' attitude will be helpful or perceived as weak by the controllers. PATCO's demands include increases that would raise the salary of a top-rated controller at the busiest towers from $49,000 to $73,000 annually, reduce the work-week from 40 hours to 32 hours and reduce the years of service needed before retirement. Only Congress, not the FAA, can grant those demands and legislation has been introduced in the House.

If there is no improvement on wages and hours, then a PATCO action of some kind is probably inevitable, according to knowledgeable controllers. The most likely date for a strike would be sometime this summer, these sources said, although it could come earlier.

In the past, PATCO has used air traffic control slowdowns as a negotiating tactic. One day New York City would have unexpected delays, the next day Washington, the next day San Francisco.

This time "there will be no slowdowns," said Trick, PATCO's director of operations. "If something happens, it will be coordinated and nationwide." o