Continental Airlines and United Airlines have laid most of the groundwork for a merger, two people briefed on the matter said, and could have a deal ready "pretty quickly".
Continental, which has said it would prefer to remain independent unless the competitive landscape changes, plans to get back to the negotiating table with United, especially after the merger between between Delta and Northwest was announced.
Both the people requested not to be identified because of the confidential nature of the talks.
The Delta-Northwest merger, would free Continental to pursue a merger with United because Northwest would forfeit a special "golden share" that gives it effective veto power over a
Continental transaction. Executives have said that if the Delta-Northwest merger goes through, Continental can buy back that blocking share for $100.
Pilots unions at United and Continental have also held merger-related discussions, and merging those two work forces is not likely to be as major a hurdle as it has been with Delta and Northwest, the two sources said.
Continental's merger talks with United had stalled when the Delta-Northwest talks sputtered because the carriers' pilots unions at those two airlines could not agree on how to integrate seniority in a combined work force.
Continental Chief Executive Larry Kellner said on a conference call in January: "We like our position as the industry stands today but I suspect if you look forward, things will change."
UAL Chief Executive Glenn Tilton has been a proponent of airline consolidation for the past three years, saying the U.S. industry is too fragmented to compete effectively on a global level.
Continental was not immediately reachable for comment while United declined to comment.
A merger between United and Continental, the second and fourth-largest U.S. airlines respectively, would surpass the Delta-Northwest combination as the world's largest carrier.
After racking up $35 billion in losses and finally emerging from a five-year slump in 2006, U.S. airlines are hoping that mergers could lead to higher fares as combined carriers reduce flights and use their increased market power to raise prices.
The airlines also face a renewed sense of urgency to consolidate and cut costs amid skyrocketing fuel prices, a weak economy and a growing competitive threat from European carriers as trade barriers fall on trans-Atlantic travel.
Continental , whose shares closed at $21.89 on the New York Stock Exchange, has a market cap of $2.13 billion. United Airlines , which closed at $23.61 on Nasdaq, has a market cap $2.72 billion. Each of the airline stocks rose about 2 percent in post-market trade.
UBS analyst Kevin Crissey said in a report earlier this month: "We believe if Delta and Northwest get together, United and Continental will follow shortly thereafter." "Additionally, we expect that Continental would receive a premium in such a deal."