A miscount of passengers aboard a World Airways flight that skidded into Boston Harbor last week, leaving two persons missing and presumed dead, may bring calls for improved ticketing procedures by the aviation industry.
For nearly three full days after the World Airways plane skidded off an icy runway Jan. 23 and landed in mud and shallow water, it was believed that all 196 passengers and 12 crew members had left the plane safely. Such assurances were given by representatives of the financially troubled carrier.
After their ordeal, most passengers left the premises with relatives or friends, some checked into local hotels, and a few were hospitalized briefly.
On the third day, however, members of a Boston-area family reported to Massachusetts State Police at Logan International Airport that two relatives they were sure had boarded the World Airways plane were unaccounted for. That triggered new interest in their case.
Since the first reports of the mishap, the family claimed to have been ignored or put off by personnel of the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan, by local police in Massachusetts and Florida, where the relatives had been on a vacation, and by officials of World Airways and another carrier they had used on the day of the accident.
A check of local hotels, inns, and hospitals for the missing passengers was fruitless, but a search of the downed plane and the luggage room at Logan turned up a carry-on bag containing a passport belonging to one of them.
Ultimately, a World Airways executive acknowledged that the missing persons almost certainly had boarded the plane at a stopover in Newark, N. J. - probably as ''standbys'' when their original flight to Boston on another airline was canceled. They were undiscovered, however, in early searches of the ''manifest, '' or passenger list, by a computer. A hand count of the tickets for the flight - after they had been sent from Newark to the World Airways headquarters in Oakland, Calif. - eventually revealed that two persons were unaccounted for.
From the start, however, World had refused to release the names of those aboard the flight because there had been no serious injuries. ''Unless there are fatalities we don't do that because we don't want to disturb the passengers' families,'' said Michael Henderson, the airline's chief spokesman.
Massport officials were quick to indicate their unhappiness over the incident , executive director David Davis saying he felt ''misled'' by World Airways. Asked if he would expect such a mistake by one of the larger airlines, Mr. Davis replied, ''Frankly, I wouldn't have expected it from any airline.''
But the only federal regulation governing passenger lists on commercial airlines is that they be kept. How carriers compile such lists and otherwise keep track of the number of passengers who use their airplanes is left up to them. In fact, carriers vary widely in their passenger accounting procedures. Some require that a head count of the number of passengers aboard match the number of tickets and boarding passes collected, but others do not. And some permit flights to depart even if differences in the two counts cannot be reconciled easily.
In the case of a flight making intermediate stops or taking on standbys and passengers from other flights that were canceled, an accurate final tally of the number of persons aboard for each leg of the trip can take many hours to reach. Also complicating the passenger-accounting process are factors as diverse as poor handwriting by airline personnel on the ground and persons traveling under assumed names.
Other regularly scheduled commercial modes of transportation - bus, rail, and commuter boat - are not subject to such an accounting.
A spokesman for the Air Transport Association (ATA) in Washington, which monitors the industry, conceded that the World Airways incident here may bring demands for passenger accounting reform. But, he added, ''the tendency is to do away with regulation.'' Indeed, the Civil Aeronautics Board, which governs the economic side of the aviation industry, is facing shutdown by the Reagan administration.
Accounting for all passengers aboard commercial flights is becoming doubly difficult, the ATA spokesman said, because ''the process is being broken down'' with the advent of increasingly popular discount tickets. Previously, an airline ticket sold to any individual was not transferrable to someone else.
There are as many as 13,000 scheduled commercial flights a day in the United States and, said an official of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), attempts to house copies of all their manifests in a central location would quickly fill available storage space.
The FAA's role in the incident, this official said, would be to ''wait for the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the World Airways accident) and then see what actions we could take to strengthen the carrier.''