In events that could reshape the airline industry, merger talks have picked up pace between Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines, a combination that could force other carriers to seek partners, people with knowledge of the talks said Wednesday.
In particular, these people said, a Delta-Northwest combination could spur Continental Airlines — albeit reluctantly — and United Airlines into negotiations of their own.
In their discussions, Delta and Northwest have reached the point of settling on leadership, and it appears that Delta’s chief executive, Richard H. Anderson, would retain that role in a combined carrier, these people said.
Any merger is expected to involve a stock swap at close to current market prices. Delta shares closed Wednesday at $17.95, up 92 cents; Northwest closed at $18.47, up 69 cents.
Participants would like to announce a deal as early as next week. But these people warned that the talks could still be derailed over any of several issues.
A softening economy and high fuel prices have convinced many in the industry that mergers — and the sweeping cost cuts that can accompany them — are needed to prevent carriers from facing a reoccurrence of the financial problems from which they are still recovering.
Most major domestic airlines reported losses in the fourth quarter. Northwest lost $8 million and Delta $70 million.
Analysts said the mergers could also lead to higher fares in some markets, at least in the short term, as combined carriers reduced flights and the number of seats, and used their increased market power to raise prices.
Any deals, however, could face opposition from leaders in Congress concerned about the loss of jobs and the reduction in competition that would probably result from a big round of mergers. Unions representing airline employees, too, could fight the combinations, unless managements agree to better job security or better pay in some instances.
Mr. Anderson is a former chief executive of Northwest and was named to the top job at Delta after it emerged from bankruptcy last year with directors who wanted to pursue industry consolidation.
He set the current talks in motion last month by asking his board for approval to enter into talks with both Northwest and United.
Douglas M. Steenland, chief executive of Northwest, who once worked for Mr. Anderson, could wind up with a lesser management role, though the details of any job and how long it might last were not clear late Wednesday.