THE interesting thing about the Cathay Pacific pilot pay punch-up is not that there should be a falling out on this topic - a bone of contention in many companies - but that we are apparently invited by both sides to participate. Most local employers regard such disputes as a private matter, at least until the public is dragged in by industrial inaction. Most employees seem to feel the same. This is particularly the case when neither side has any obvious claim to public sympathy. CPA may not be doing quite as well as it would wish in its more roseate dreams, but it is scarcely in the widows and orphans category. The flyers, though no doubt honest and deserving workers in their way, can scarcely qualify as poor or down-trodden when compared with the general population. A dispute between these two looks like an opportunity for most of us to pass quietly by on the other side of the road, leaving market forces to operate their mysterious magic untrammelled by the observations of strangers. But it seems this is not going to happen. The airline, mindful perhaps of the PR pasting it took over the flight attendants' strike, has been going to great lengths to stress its poverty and pilots' prosperity. Responses are beginning to seep out from the flight deck crews. I must say that though I get regular briefings from a close relative in the thick of this (if that qualifies as an interest, consider it declared) it seems a peculiarly difficult matter for lay people. Usually we can hope to form some sort of view of what other people ought to be paid, by comparing them with the circumstances of similar workers - or indeed of ourselves. This allows us to assess the behaviour of the boss and his workers. The trouble is that any calculation of this kind for pilots and their airborne assistants soon becomes hideously complicated. The suggestion that they work on average two hours a week is either propaganda or a silly mistake. Elaborate calculations are performed in an effort to achieve comparable measurements of the variety of different ways in which flyers spend their time. Besides flying hours the system has to cater for preparation, waiting on stand-by, refresher training and so on. The notional 700-hour year for pilots has no more real significance than the notional 12-hour week applied to university lecturers. We must assume that there is some time-honoured compromise between the need to extract value from expensive manpower and the need to ensure that your captain is not actually asleep at the wheel. Whatever calculation we make about hours, we have to factor in difficult items to evaluate, like time spent at leisure but far from hearth and home. No doubt the first long weekend in Vancouver offers the pleasures of tourism without the expense. By the fifth it will be a mere fact of life, and long before the 50th a tiresome necessity. And then there is the delicate matter of risks and responsibilities. It is easy to portray the modern pilot as little more than a high-tech bus driver. Most of the work is done by the computer. In any case, flying airplanes is fun. But this misses the point. The moments when the services of a highly-trained crew are really necessary are unpredictable and, we hope, rare. The fact remains that flying is an intrinsically hazardous activity. MY last landing at Kai Tak was conducted in a typhoon. Less hardy modes of transport had abandoned the scene and the few taxis available were charging danger money. As we swooped over Lantau in a flutter of leaps, bumps and bursts of the throttle our driver was kind enough to assure us that ''the operation is normal''. Three weeks later a less gifted performer tried the same trick and dropped his jumbo into the harbour. Those of us who merely ride do not know the precise combination of talent and training required to perform this sort of evolution safety. We may well suspect that they are expensive. Having said this, I must say that in my occasional encounters with CPA flight-deckers I have never noticed anything which could be mistaken for poverty. Rather the contrary. The standard symptoms of expat prosperity are commonplace. I draw no conclusions, except this: most of us are going to take only a remote interest in this matter unless it involves a strike. At that point, whatever pre-emptive PR ingenuity has been deployed by either side, we shall heartily blame both of them.