Sightless travelers are angry with the nation's airlines. They say they've been restricted and had their itineraries restructured and their rights rescinded - all because they're blind.

Kenneth Jernigan, president of the National Federation of the Blind, the nation's largest organization of blind persons, said the trouble has grown out of the "safety regulations" issued last year by the Federal Aviation Administration.

He said the regulations allow the airlines to make up any safety rules they want and enforce them "whether or not they serve any real safety purpose." The result, Jernigan said, has been travel troubles for the 475,000 blind persons in the country - and also for the 25 million Americans with other handicaps.

"There is now such a welter of contradictory rules that a handicapped traveler setting out for the airport must take into account the possibility that he may never get onto a plane, or be forced off the plane at any stop en route, or if he protests be arrested at the direction of airline personnel," said the nonsalaries chief executive of the 50,000-members, nonprofit organization.

Jernigan, who is blind himself, noted: "For purposes of air travel, blind persons require no special treatment at all. There are no physical features of planes that we can't handle; we need no special procedures on board."

But even though there is no documented evidence that blind passengers ever created a safety hazard during an emergency, he said, just about every U.S. airline has one restriction or another concerning the blind. Some of them include:

A blind passenger must notify the airline in advance.

Blind persons must sit next to a window.

Blind persons may not keep canes at their seats.

No two blind persons may sit in the same row of seats.

No more than three or four blind persons may travel on the same plane.

The last regulation is particularly infuriating, said Jernigan.

"Suppose I decide to go on a trip, and I go to the airport. I have confirmed reservations. It just so happens that four other blind persons (none knowing anything about the others) also have reservations on that plane. When we show up at the airport, one of us will not be allowed to board, regardless of the fact that we all have confirmed reservations. But that's not the worst of it. Let us say that I'm goint to New York from the West Coast with a transfer in Chicago. Just by chance, a blind person has arrived from Dallas who wishes to board that same flight, and four more have come from Minneapolis. Two of us will be stranded in Chicago - regardless of our confirmed reservations. Moreover, we cannot be sure that we will not be stranded in New York or in Chicago on the return trip."

Ironically, the FAA started their rule-making review at the request of the National Federation of the Blind and other organizations because their members had run into trouble with airline personnel. After nearly three years of deliberation, the government agency decided the matter was too complex to issue clear rules and opted instead to let the airlines devise their own procedures.

"Not only were some of the regulations blatantly discriminatory, but there was no way to find out what all the rules were," said Jim Gashel, the federation's Washington representative. "We tried to collect these rules over a period of nine months. And even with the assistance of the Air Transport Association, we could get only about 50 percent of them. One airline even wrote that the rules were spread throughout their manuals and it would be confusing to travelers to try to understand them."

The FAA action left the handicapped more up in the air than ever over their rights as airline passengers, Gashel said. Things heated up early this summer, he said, after a blind man was pushed around and arrested and six others were forced off a plane in midjourney for refusing to give up their canes. Lawsuits were brought against the airline and the FAA, and the agency's Washington office was picketed by 1,000 members of the federation.

"What it boils down to," said Jernigan, "is that airline counter and flight personnel have been given the authority to make laws, to curtail our freedom to travel at their own whim and without regard to due process or equal treatment. It means that no handicapped person in America can make air travel plans with the expectation that he will actually reach his destination, or reach it with his dignity or civil rights intact."

Jernigan said about half the states now have "white cane laws." The laws offer protection to persons with any form of physical disability - entitling them to full and equal accommodations, privileges of all common carriers, and other places open to the general public - subject only to conditions and limitations established by law and "applicable alike to all persons."

Jernigan, who in 1976 was named special consultant to the White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals, said that a similar model "white cane law" is now before Congress, which is expected to act on it early next year. "The new law is to the handicapped what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is to racial minorities," he said.

Up until the time federal legislation is passed, Jernigan suggests, any physically disabled person who plans to travel in the United States can find out the laws concerning the handicapped in the states they plan to visit by contacting Jim Gashel, Blindness Information Center, National Federation of the Blind, Room 212, 1346 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036.

Said Jernigan: "The handicapped are not sitting at home feeling sorry for themselves, they are taking an increasingly active and normal role in society. The truth is that this urge to protect us or keep us safe is more limiting that any physical disability. And pity and fear translates, in practice, into discrimination."