The Federal Aviation Administration will pay better attention to air safety if it remains under control of the Transportation Department, the chairman of the nation's safety watchdog agency said yesterday.

"An independent FAA might be better for the industry, but I believe it would be worse for the traveling public," Jim Burnett, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told a Senate subcommittee.

Burnett's recommendation came at the second of three hearings scheduled by Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.) to consider whether the FAA would function more efficiently if extracted from its parent agency. Ford, who chairs the aviation subcommittee, has written legislation that would create an independent FAA and establish a seven-year term for the FAA chief.

Burnett told the senators he was concerned that removing the FAA from the Transportation Department "might actually reduce, rather than increase, the safety board's efforts to achieve real-world safety accomplishments." Burnett noted that his remarks were his own, not a recommendation from the board.

Meanwhile, the administration moved closer to nominating James H. Burnley IV as the new Transportation secretary, replacing Elizabeth Hanford Dole, who announced her resignation Sept. 14. Dole left the department last Friday to participate full time in the presidential campaign of her husband, Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.).

Burnley, deputy secretary since 1983, emerged as the leading candidate last week. But his nomination was delayed after several senators who specialize in aviation issues sent word to the White House they would rather Burnley not get the job.

Burnley's aggressive and confrontational manner has angered senators who have dealt with him over the years. Even key Republican senators on the Senate Commerce Committee, while not publicly opposed, were unwilling to go to bat for him.

Burnley met privately last Wednesday with Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), chairman of the Appropriations transportation subcommittee, to make amends for insulting Lautenberg on national television last spring. Burnley, who has said he does not expect to receive the nomination, sent a followup letter to Lautenberg the next day, saying that he regretted any loss in their working relationship.

Ford said yesterday he sensed that opposition to Burnley's nomination was "winding down," because the administration "is winding down toward the end."

But, Ford added, "The dogwoods may be blooming before he gets the confirmation."

Ford said he also plans to proceed with his legislation to remove the FAA from the department, even though there will be a change in secretaries. The drive to create an independent FAA gained momentum toward the end of Dole's tenure when aviation lobbies complained that Dole, Burnley and other top aides had unnecessarily politicized aviation issues and delayed hirings and equipment purchases by nitpicking the tiniest details.

Although the FAA opposes its removal from the Transportation Department, T. Allan McArtor, the new FAA chief, privately requested that he be given more authority to make FAA equipment purchases. After Ford's first hearing, the department responded to McArtor that it was delegating greater authority to the FAA for equipment procurement programs.