THE ONE-HOUR Eastern Airlines shuttle now takes something like two--maybe three--hours. You go to the gate, take a number, go away for a while, come back at a designated time, board the plane and then sit three abreast until the tower clears the plane for takeoff. The shuttle, which always had the ambiance of a cattle ship, now has a timetable to match. Things work when they work. Do not ask for more.

And do not once again ask why this is happening. The delays on the shuttle and on all domestic flights, the overcrowding and the cancellations, is the sort of sacrifice our president asks us to make to uphold the rule of law. It is, of course, nothing compared to the price the controllers and their families have had to pay. For them, though, the administration has no sympathy. They broke the law when they went out on strike and the law, as we all know, is the law.

Except when it comes to Richard Nixon. With him, the law goes from some sort of upper-case abstraction that must be upheld no matter what, to something akin to a shrug of the shoulders. The reason for that has nothing to do with the law. It has to do instead with the fact that to set a standard for Nixon, sets a standard for the presidency itself -- one that Reagan himself is obliged to meet. The same holds for the controllers, but that's okay. They were supposed to be an example to others. The upshot is that a former president is held to lower standards of behavior than ordinary citizens. In fact, Nixon is held to no standards at all.

After all, Nixon's crimes are well documented. He saw to that. On tape after tape, the man recited his crimes, his intentions, his plans and his scheme to cover up the crimes that other members of his administration had committed. He conscripted the CIA and the FBI into an attempt to break the law and destroy evidence. He lied to the American people, and when it was all over, he had no choice but to resign and pocket a presidential pardon.

This is a record that is hard to beat. With any luck at all, it will never be equaled. It was enough at the time for some members of Nixon's own party to move for his impeachment, but now it all seems to have been either forgotten or forgiven by some people. For some time now, Nixon has been creeping up on respectability, but it took Reagan to certify his wholesomeness by dispatching him to the funeral of Anwar Sadat. Later,in what was billed as a private mission, Nixon went on to meet with the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Who could blame them for seeing him. If he's good enough for Reagan, he ought to be good enough for them.

But such is not the case with the air traffic controllers. They remain beyond the pale. Their crime will not be forgiven. To Ronald Reagan, they did something worse than bug and tap phones, lie to the people, destroy evidence, and demean the office of the presidency. They actually went out on an illegal strike. For this, they must lose their income -- in some cases their very homes. For this, we must all suffer delays. For this, there is no forgiving.

There is something sadly out of whack here. What the air traffic controllers did was, legally, wrong. They are not permitted to strike against the government. That is the law, and when they broke it, they should have been punished and they were. But they are merely people who worked for a branch of the government that, by the administration's own admission, had some severe management problems. They had their grievances. They had their reasons for going on strike. They are not evil, vile people who should never be forgiven.

The Reagan administration, though, is unforgiving. This is because it wants to set an example for other unions. When it comes to Nixon, though, the situation is seen as unique. He is given a pardon and the presidential version of a new suit of clothes.

The point is not to insist on some sort of permanent exile for Richard Nixon. The point, instead, is for Nixon and the air traffic controllers to be held to the same standard. If one can be forgiven, then so can the other. If justice is truly blind, then what matters is the law and not who breaks it. To think otherwise, is to think like Richard Nixon himself. And this is why he needed that pardon.