THE DISPUTE between the air controllers and the Reagan administration ended, as such things usually do, in an arrangement that permits both sides to proclaim victory. The controllers got some of the concessions they wanted; the administration kept the cost of the settlement within the $40 million figure it had chosen. The only apparent losers are those airplane passengers who juggled their schedules in anticipation of a strike and, at least in the case of those using National Airport, endured considerable discomfort Sunday night.

It's too bad tha the negotiations went down to the wire. The transportation network would not have become so snarled if the outline of a settlement had been clearer a day or so earlier. But it may have taken the crisis atmosphere that developed on Friday to reveal to both sides, in particular to the controllers, that there was very little tolerance -- on Capitol Hill or elsewhere -- for a strike. The intention of Congress, as its members made clear on Friday, is to keep spending down, and that includes spending for pay increases for government employees. That intention is likely to be tested again in another month when the contracts between the Postal Service and four unions expire.

Beyond the impact this settlement will have on those negotiations, however, is a larger question. In the past, the government has not bargained over salaries or fringe benefits with employees or unions except for the postal workers and the employees of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Having set a precedent by negotiating these matters with the controllers, the Reagan administration may now find itself being asked to bargain in a similar way with such groups as border patrol or customs agents, prison guards and so forth. It is not surprising, as Mike Causey reports in the Federal Diary this morning, that leaders of other unions are delighted with the air controllers' settlement.

Such negotiations, like those with the air controllers, are bound to be peculiar and difficult. This is because strikes or even threats or strikes against the government are illegal and because any negotiated settlement is, at most, a promise by the administration to support pay-increase legislation before Congress. It will be a while before anyone knows whether this air controllers' agreement is unique -- and the controllers do claim to be unique among government employees -- or a turning point in the government's relations with its workers. e