Robert E. Poli's resignation as president of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) has opened a way for more moderate leaders to seek a reconciliation with the Reagan administration and the restoration of thousands of jobs lost in the union's 1981 strike.
Mr. Poli resigned Dec. 31 as president of the decertified controllers union, saying that by quitting he hoped enmity over the union's walkout last Aug. 3 could be soothed. ''I am the symbol of that strike, there's no question about that,'' he said.
''I have always said that if I believed I was an impediment to a solution of the strike, I would step aside. I now believe that time has come,'' Poli said.
He will leave office officially Jan. 6. Robert Meyer, executive vice-president, will also step down. Poli took office in 1980 on a platform calling for increased militancy. He had majority support of the membership for the strike last August, but opposition to him and his policies has been building in recent weeks.
Gary Eads, a Kansas City regional vice-president, is expected to be named officially on Jan. 4 to succeed Mr. Poli. Dominic Torchia from California is the reported executive board choice to succeed Mr. Meyer. Both are considered moderates -- ''middle ground'' leaders expected to be able to win back PATCO dissident groups, largely nonstrikers, who call themselves the Concerned Air Traffic Controllers.
Their larger task, considered vital for the survival of the union, is to persuade President Reagan to allow the reinstatement of many of the 11,500 controllers who were fired for striking. George Brandon, a PATCO executive board member, feels that Mr. Eads will be able to do this if anyone can. He has ''the ability to reach the middle ground with anyone . . . a great deal of experience in the organization, and (he) is a moderate.'' But, Mr. Brandon concedes, getting controllers back to work ''is going to be like walking on eggs.''
The administration says that Poli's resignation will not alter President Reagan's refusal to reinstate controllers who ''as individuals'' engaged in an illegal walkout. PATCO moderates believe that this attitude may be changed through new and conciliatory talks.
When new leaders take over, they say, the first order of business will be a request for talks with the administration ''to clear the air.''