WITH ALL the signs of a typical Washington fast shuffle, moves are under way on Capitol Hill to saddle the airline industry with some mandatory featherbedding disguised as labor protection. House and Senate conferees are trying to slip into an otherwise noncontroversial bill a provision by which airlines would have to make costly payments to pilots and other employees affected by any mergers or possibly even sales of assets, including aircraft.

The proposal, which has undergone no hearings, would--among other things--guarantee furloughed employees 60 percent of their salaries for up to five years; and it would compensate for up to four years any employee for any wage loss suffered through transfer to a lower-paying job. This could mean that the highest-paid furloughed pilots would be entitled to demand $90,000 a year for five years--whether their airlines could afford it or not. Isn't this the sort of thing better left to collective bargaining?

Of course--unless you're a member of the Air Line Pilots Association, which would much rather put the payments into law than bargain for them. This organization's president is the labor representative on the executive committee of the Republican National Committee. There, as in the White House, ALPA is remembered with gratitude for its support of President Reagan's decision to fire striking air traffic controllers last year. ALPA is just as fondly remembered on Capitol Hill, where the group has dropped more than $425,000 in campaign contributions on carefully selected targets--namely, more than 200 representatives and senators, including key members of the congressional conference committee considering the provision.

Officially, the administration is on record against the measure. OMB director David Stockman has so argued, labeling the proposed amendment "unacceptable" and "an intrusion by the federal government into private collective bargaining negotiations." He points out that such provisions would be especially damaging for the airlines in serious financial difficulty--and could prevent them from taking "sensible steps to restructure" and compete.

Before the airlines were deregulated, the Civil Aeronautics Board could make a case for insisting that jobs be protected in mergers and swaps, since airlines were benefiting from government-protected franchises. But today there is no case whatever for legalized shakedowns of financially shaky airlines. The conferees should reject any such proposal.