Continental Airlines pilots yesterday refused, for now, to join a machinists' strike that has forced the airline to halt service in 17 of its 108 cities.

Continental said yesterday it will begin permanently replacing striking mechanics who fail to report for work today.

Leaders of the Air Line Pilots Association, representing Continental's 1,600 pilots, voted last night in Los Angeles to remain neutral for the time being and to continue flying.

The pilots decided to continue "to maintain a neutral position while collecting and evaluating pertinent information on the International Association of Machinists labor dispute," ALPA spokesman Guy Casey said last night.

The striking union also grappled with dissention within its own ranks. A spokesman for the IAM said workers who had been employes of Texas International Airlines, which merged with Continental last year, had been resisting the strike.

Former TIA workers form about half the union's membership, and the union was meeting with TIA workers to "find out what the problems are," Continental shop committee chairman Daryl Dixon said.

The Houston-based carrier has about 13,000 employes nationwide. Its routes are concentrated in the West.

Continental spokesman Bruce Hicks said that beginning today, the airline "is going to be permanently replacing all mechanics who do not report for duty."

Supervisors have been filling in for the mechanics.

Hicks refused to give a number, but added, "We have had a significant number of mechanics crossing picket lines and coming to work."

The company has from 1,300 to 1,400 employes classified as mechanics, Hicks said, adding that other jobs held by striking members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers had been contracted out.

The 2,000 striking employes went on strike at 12:01 a.m. EDT Saturday.

On 85 percent of Continental's routes, it was "business as usual," the company said.

A major issue in negotiations was proposed changes in work rules that would wipe out between 450 and 500 jobs held by union members, King McCulloch, assistant airline coordinator for the union, said.

No further talks have been scheduled.

Continental said flights were continuing to serve 91 of the 108 cities served by the airline. Among the employes on strike are mechanics, kitchen workers and cabin cleaners.

"Operations at the ticket counters are very, very smooth and passenger loads are what we had anticipated them to be," Hicks said.

In Newark, N.J., airline spokesman Bill Diehl said: "All of our flights are operating on schedule. We're very pleased with the way things are going . . . no delays and most of the flights fairly full."

In a recent vote, 93 percent of the union's Continental employes rejected an offer that the company said would provide an annual base salary of $35,000 for the average licensed mechanic.

The package also included an additional $10,000 in benefits over the life of the contract, which would expire Dec. 31, 1984.

Hicks said Continental offered a 20 percent pay increase retroactive to June 1, but that the union was seeking a 36 percent raise through the life of the agreement. The mechanics are paid an average of $13.45 an hour.