The merger frenzy swirling through the airline industry is sending the personal net worth of two of L.A.'s richest residents into higher air space, and their windfall could go higher in the months ahead.

Former Walt Disney Co. executive Gary Wilson and former gubernatorial candidate Alfred A. Checchi, controlling shareholders of Northwest Airlines Corp., have seen their net worth jump on news that AMR Corp., the parent of American Airlines, has held discussions about possibly acquiring Northwest.

Growing speculation about a buyout has sent Northwest's stock price up steadily since it hit a low of $16.13 a share in March. By the June 8 close, the share price had more than doubled to $32.38.

Wilson, according the Northwest's latest proxy statement, holds 17.2 million common shares, or 20.3 percent of the company. That makes his holdings worth about $557 million.

Checchi isn't doing too badly, either. With 11.4 million shares, or 13.5 percent of the airline, his stake is now worth more than $369 million.

Each of the men, who were unavailable for comment last week, reportedly initially invested between $10 million and $12 million in Northwest.

Any ultimate buyout of Northwest would likely be transacted at a price considerably higher than Northwest's current market value, industry observers said.

"They will make a lot of money," said Robert Milmore, an airline analyst at New York-based Arnhold & Bleichroeder. "They will want the most they can get for the airline. Right now, they're in the catbird's seat."

The recent run-up in Northwest's stock price accelerated after UAL Corp., parent of United Airlines, agreed to buy US Airways Group Inc. That deal, which is still subject to shareholder and regulatory approval, created immediate pressure for other major U.S. carrier to get bigger fast.

Suddenly, AMR was reported to be in merger talks with Delta Air Lines, in addition to Northwest. Swiss Air won approval to buy a majority interest in Belgium's Sabena Airlines, and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines was said to be talking to British Airways about a merger.

Still, while Wilson and Checchi may be holding a hot hand in this international game of airline poker, their optimal time to parachute out with the cash may have passed. Many stock analysts doubt that a takeover of Northwest would be approved due to federal antitrust concerns. In addition, the stock market seems to be cooling to the deal, and Northwest shares have dropped after an initial jump on news of the possible merger with American.


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