Airline pilots and their crews have direct responsibility for the safety of their passengers and the strongest firsthand feel for what's at risk. They are the first to be called to account and the likeliest to lose their lives if things go wrong.

But even that is not enough to explain why the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Association should have to come up with the only forceful response to the methodical, murderous shooting down of a Korean Air Lines 747 by a Soviet interceptor--the only reprisal that seriously seeks to apply punishment as pressure for a remedy that relates directly to the crime.

The organization's governing board asked the members of national pilot associations in the 17 countries whose airlines have routes to Moscow to suspend service for 60 days. The penalty is not without purpose; the federation would consider lifting the boycott if the Soviets came up with an "adequate" explanation of what happened "and took steps to insure it would never be repeated."

That's not a whole lot to ask when you consider the threats as well as the insults that the Soviets have added to the original injury. The truculent "confession" came only after a public display of incontrovertible evidence.

Now, you can say that's pretty much par for the course of Soviet conduct, given their fortress mentality, their "paranoia" and all the rest. Maybe so. But that still leaves pilots, international airlines, and passengers with a Soviet statement on the record to the effect that not only would they do it over again if they had to but that they will continue to do it again if they feel like it.

A lot has been made of the discrepancy between the presidents' harsh words and the mildness of his recommended response. His conservative true believers are dismayed that he would allow any further business as usual. Cooler heads have welcomed the moderation in his proposals-- but their quarrel is that he's coming across as a fellow who doesn't mean what he says.

And so it would seem when you examine what the president said about sanctions against Soviet international air transit--and then compare the airline pilots' actions with the response of allied governments. The president praised Canada's quick 60-day suspension of landing rights for the Soviets' Aeroflot. He "reaffirmed" a two-year-old U.S. ban on Aeroflot, actually related to Poland, and closed down the airlines' idle offices in the United States. But America's allies first hemmed and hawed about possible reprisals and the sanctity of air treaties with the Soviet Union when they were pressed to suspend air service to and from Moscow. That some (but not all) of them are now moving toward token, two-week, two-way boycotts of Soviet air service owes far less to U.S. leadership than to pressure from the pilots.

The president also said the United States wanted the International Civil Aviation Organization to conduct an investigation. He said "we are listening" to airline pilots, passenger associations and other private groups--just listening.

And so it went: a request for a joint congressional resolution of condemnation; announcement of a suspension on negotiations to renew cultural and scientific exchanges; a claim against the Soviet Union for compensation for the victims' survivors.

None of this is likely to damage the Soviet Union as much as the effect their own display of ham-handed hostility is likely to have on world opinion and on the power of the peace movements that the political leaders in Moscow have been playing to so assiduously. In Congress, the we- told-you-so's will strengthen the hand of heavy defense spenders. The president would have us believe that congressional approval of the MX missile would constitute an important and timely response to the Soviet Union.

My own sense is that the Soviet system doesn't work in a way that would make that connection. Conceivably, it doesn't work in a way that would make a connection between what the airline pilots hope to achieve and what Soviet air-defense commanders did to KAL 007. But a hold on international air service to Moscow would at least apply pressure for Soviet reform in a way that has logically to do with the Soviet offense.