The controversial issue of whether air traffic controllers should be disciplined for their mistakes appears to be at the heart of a pledge by Washington area controllers that they are going to work "by the book."

Robert Sturgill, of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) are safety committee, procedures are being urged for controllers.

In the past, such operations have resulted in air traffic slowdowns, but both airline industry and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials agreed yesterday no slowdown was in evidence.

PATCO represents most of the air traffic controllers nationwide. The air traffic control system is operated by the FAA.

In an interview yesterday Sturgill cited both the discipline issue and stepped-up checks into the validity of sick leave requests at the regional air traffic control center in Leesburg as the reason for "going public" with the dispute.

On Thursday, Sturgill said, supervisors there began questioning requests for sick leave and ordered some people to report to work, despite the requests. f

Angelo Viselli, chief of the Leesburg center, said that his supervisors had been encouraged to step-up their checks after an inordinate number of sick leave requests came from people assigned to one secto -- an area of airspace that requires specialized experience.

"We couldn't even find people to come in on overtime," Viselli said, "Maybe we could have gotten the Baltimore Orioles to make an announcement on their P.A. system." The large number of absences occured during a Baltimore baseball playoff game last week, he said.

Sturgill said tht people who were sick should not be working because it would create an unsafe condition.

Sturgill spent most of his time in the interview complaining about the FAA's new rules on disciplining controllers who err, a national issue that has been simmering for months.

After TWA flight 514 crashed west of Dulles International Airport on Dec. 1, 1974, killing all 92 people aboard, controllers and pilots alike testified that the conditions leading to that accident were known, but had gone unreported because of fear of reprisal from the FAA. That led to the development of an "immunity reporting system" under which pilots and controllers could report unsafe conditions without fear of reprisals.

FAA Administrator Langhorn M. Bond stopped that earlier this year, claiming that many careless mistakes were happening, but that the perpetrators were immunizing themselves from disciplinary action by simply filing a report.

Bond's action has been upheld in court, but PATCO is seeking to have it overturned through a labor union grievance. Arbitration hearings are scheduled next week.

The Washington area situation is Strictly a local issue and has no national implications," national PATCO president John Leyden said yesterday.