When Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis visted the air-traffic control center in Dallas recently, employes there gave him a radio headset, appropriately mounted, with words declaring him an honorary controller.

"When these guys who had just stuck with us through thick and thin and everything presented that to me, I broke down and cried," Lewis said. "I was so embarrassed, I didn't know what to say."

Thus, one of the few times that Drew Lewis lost his cool during his two-year stewardship of the Transportation Department came when he was surrounded by air-traffic controllers. He had fired 11,400 of them when they went on strike in August, 1981, and kept the airplanes flying at a somewhat reduced level with those who were left: the ones who gave him the headset.

Lewis' tenure as head of the Department of Transportation officially ends at midnight Monday, when he becomes the chief operating officer of Warner Amex, a cable television firm.

His achievements include much more than keeping the planes flying, although that established him as a star in the Reagan administration. New taxes are in place to finance aviation, highway and transit needs. New legislation makes it possible for the federal government to sell Conrail. And an officially adopted plan imposes some order on the future of Washington National Airport.

But Lewis also will go down as the transportation secretary who oversaw the dismantling of a long-time government effort to require automobile manufacturers to install airbags or other devices that automatically would restrain auto drivers or passengers in a collision, regardless of whether they had buckled up.

The last chapter is not written on that subject, because it now is before the Supreme Court. But the administration's rigid opposition to a device that many are convinced could save thousands of lives also will be part of Lewis' legacy.

He talked last week about airbags, controllers and what he regarded as a major disappointment: the fact that Congress did not pass an administration-backed maritime reform bill, a task that will be high on the priority list of his successor, Elizabeth Hanford Dole.

"Of the 50,000 people killed on the highways" every year, Lewis said, "25,000 are involved in drunken driving, and a large portion of the balance would be saved if we did something in terms of seat belts. . . . If we just continued to hammer away on this drunk-driving thing and did an effective job, I think you'd find it would save considerably more lives than you would through airbags."

But how many more lives could be saved with airbags?

"I have a legal problem" in answering that, Lewis said. "I can't comment on something before the Supreme Court. The bottom line is, I feel we have an adequate program for safety."

Lewis is, of course, pleased that the air-traffic control system performed as well as it did after the controllers' strike. But he claims to be aware of the human toll that strike took.

"We would have liked to have figured out some way to bring some of those people back," he said, "I would like to think there was a better solution than the one we had, but I don't have a better solution . . . . I've worried about that for two years, because I get letters from people who say they've lost their house and their wife left them because they don't have a job, and I'm not insensitive . . . . "

On the other hand, he added: "I think when we're back to 100 percent capacity, we'll have a safer system than we ever had pre-strike. And that is not in any way being critical of the people who worked before the strike; it's something we learned because of the strike, because we were forced to handle things a little differently."

Lewis said that even after the system is fully restored, which he expects will be sometime late this year, controllers will continue holding airplanes on the ground until certain that there is a "slot" for them to land at their destination.

This will eliminate the circling patterns in which jets burn fuel and cockpit tempers fray. Some airlines are concerned, however, that the policy will make it difficult to schedule service so that one flight can connect with many others: the hub-and-spoke concept around which the deregulated airlines are building networks.

The maritime issue is complex, involving regulation, international competition and how to pay for expanding U.S. harbors to accommodate enormous ships of the future.

A controversial bill that deals with one part of the puzzle, the regulatory changes for international trade, passed the House last year but died in the Senate at least partly because, as Lewis conceded, he had to choose in the lame-duck session whether to push the highway construction/gasoline tax bill or the maritime bill. There was not time for both.

But regardless of the problems, Lewis clearly is pleased with the accomplishments.

"If you look at the things that have happened here in airports, highways, mass transportation, bridges and the things we're concerned about, we really have had a good record," he said. "The budget in the Transportation Department has gone from $20 billion to $28 billion, a 40 percent increase when everybody else is going through cuts. So there are a lot of positive things."

Lewis believes that it is important for the government to have programs, and is known to have encouraged the White House along those lines.

"I like the development of programs, the establishment of programs, the selling of programs, the legislative aspects of getting the programs put in place, more than I do sending money to Pennsylvania for Interstate 95," he said.

But getting programs, Lewis emphasized, requires compromise and give-and-take.

"These real strong idealogical positions are fine," he said, "but you gotta' be able to get from here to there. It makes no difference at all what you do, if you can't get to the middle point, because you're not going to get to the end . . . . You're not going to jump there in the first move."

Lewis said he does not think that he will run again for elective office. He was defeated in 1974 in a bid for the Pennsylvania statehouse.

"I have thought about it and the real problem I have is: What do I run for?" he said. As for the House or Senate, "I don't see myself being an effective legislator. I think I'm too impatient."