Longtime Wall Street Journal reporter and editor Petzinger (Oil and Honor, 1987) was once a baggage handler for United Airlines. Now he effectively handles some heavy stuff for the whole airline industry with a thoroughgoing description of the business and the tycoons who've ruled it since deregulation 17 years ago. The tale is as fascinating as any of Barbary buccaneers, railroad magnates, or others of the robber baron ilk. There are lots of men like the scary Frank Lorenzo, who, when he learned of another airline's DC-9 crashing with 90 people aboard, cried ""Ninety? Shit! We're only carrying 70 on a DC-9!"" (He reconfigured his planes to pack in more seats.) Eastern, Pan Am, Frontier, Braniff, and People Express, among others, all came to bad ends as the madly competitive, cannibalistic CEOs played musical executive chairs. Ticket prices no longer have any relation to a trip's distance, but are the result of fare fights and the need to fill every seat on every flight. The hub system, which requires hauling customers all over the skies, was developed to keep other carriers from getting their hands on hapless passengers. Reservation systems were secretly rigged to favor the few airlines that owned them. The pilots' unions were played against the machinists' union and both were played against the flight attendants' until the acronym BOHICA--for ""bend over, here it comes again""--was common in the ranks. Illegal campaign payments were made. Suicides took place. As one CEO put it, ""It was not good-spirited competition."" Petzinger thinks that the competitive craziness is just about played out and that other problems, perhaps involving the Internet or affecting safety, will appear. (He doesn't mention the disarray in air traffic control or mounting frequent-flier obligations.) A sharply drawn, engaging book about air wars largely led by some colorful brigands.