Smooth takeoff expected

A United Airlines plane taxis toward a runway as a Continental Airlines plane takes off in the background at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. The two could announce a merger deal as early as next week.

NEW YORK -- Continental and United Airlines parent UAL Corp. are expected to announce a merger deal early next week, creating a global airline with little route overlap and new opportunities to attract more premium-paying travelers.

"I see nothing but positives," said Roger King, a bond analyst with CreditSights. "These guys will have the best global network of any airline."

UAL brings to the union a strong trans-Pacific presence that Continental lacks. While Continental has more routes to Latin America and its hub at Newark International Airport, a key domestic gateway between Europe and the U.S.

"I think United's lucrative Pacific routes were the tipping point for Continental to merge," said Robert Herbst, an analyst with AirlineFinancials. com. "It will help increase premium traffic from Asia and push yields higher, but mostly from the business side."

Ticket prices could climb for some overseas routes due to less competition, but Terry Trippler of the travel advisory firm Rules to Know said that will be short term. "In the long run, this will be good for travelers," he said. "Many more international flights, more international gateways ... more flights to Asia."

United and Continental boards reportedly met Friday to discuss the final details of the agreement and could have a deal inked by Monday. Final negotiations hinge on whether the all-stock deal should include a share-price ratio.

UAL declined to comment, and Continental didn't immediately respond to phone calls.

Analysts expect U.S. antitrust regulators will give the new airline its approval, and none of the analysts MarketWatch spoke to could think of any gates or landing slots the new airline might be forced to sell.

Continental's major hubs are Cleveland, Houston and Newark, while United's are Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington D.C.

Both airlines serve Charleston International Airport, where Delta Air Lines and US Airways account for most of the local passenger traffic.

There may be some capacity reductions for major markets as result of the merger, but budget carriers are likely to step in to fill any gaps. New York, for example, could see more of United's JFK operations move to Newark, N.J.

Combining operations between United and Continental is expected to go smoothly. They have a close relationship on international routes through the Star Alliance, and they share some ticketing, frequent-flier benefits, and certain ground and marketing operations.

Labor could create some headwinds, but pilot and flight attendant groups from both airlines are in contract negotiations, increasing the opportunities for management to offer better pay and benefits to get personnel on board. United reportedly has offered to lift its flight attendant pay to match that of Continental.

Pilots, a key group that Delta Airlines and Northwest went to great lengths to satisfy before fully committing to a merger deal in 2008, belong to the same umbrella labor organization, the Air Line Pilots Association. That group has in place a policy for integrating pilot seniority lists in case of a merger.

Because of the minimal overlap between, layoffs and furloughs likely will be few.

"It's more positive for them to have labor agreements first, but I don't think they have to have them," said Herbst.

Regardless of how smoothly the carriers join forces, the winner is still the industry as a whole, according to Hunter Keay, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus. "The big strength is a long-term one because it means one less legacy carrier to buy planes; one less carrier to add capacity when the economy is getting better," Keay said.

The Post and Courier contributed to this report.