AN AIR-FREIGHT GIANT AVOIDS THE PELICAN'S POUCH

AN AIR-FREIGHT GIANT AVOIDS THE PELICAN'S POUCH

Ungainly but interesting, pelicans are noteworthy for their rubbery throat pouches, which expand like balloons as the big birds scoop up fish they can swallow later.

So it's fitting that ''Pelican'' was the secret code-name for the recent talks between Germany's two air-freight giants - the postal system, Deutsche Post AG, and the Lufthansa AG airline - on the possibility of creating a logistics alliance.Deutsche Post, like a giant corporate pelican, has spent the past couple of years gobbling up all sorts of European (and a few American) logistics, package-delivery, direct-mail and air-freight operations.

That $5 billion acquisition spree - swallowing everything from the Swiss-based Danzas AG freight forwarder to the largest U.S. air-freight company, Air Express International - has resulted in an ungainly mixture of companies in Deutsche Post's throat pouch.

The big questions are: How much more will fit in that pouch? And how long will it take for the Yellow Giant, as Deutsche Post is nicknamed, to swallow and digest all those disparate transport prizes?

For the time being, at least, Lufthansa's air-freight company, Lufthansa Cargo, is clearly not in the pouch. After months of secret Pelican talks, executives of the two companies announced last week that, instead of a merger or acquisition, the two air-freight giants would form a pair of new partnerships.

In their joint statement, Lufthansa Cargo and Deutsche Post described their new agreements as ''a close strategic alliance.'' But the extent of the new ventures was not as momentous as expected by a few industry experts, who had speculated that the post office might buy as much as half of Lufthansa Cargo.

After all, Lufthansa Cargo is the world's leading cargo airline, and Deutsche Post - with its big gulps of AEI and Danzas - has become the world's leading air-shipping company. That's on top of its extensive European delivery network for letters, parcels and freight.

But the two air-freight giants settled, for now, on announcing the two partnerships: a joint company called Aerologic, in which they will pool their voting rights in the DHL International integrator; and a joint company called e-logic that will concentrate on logistics-related e-commerce.

One reason for the timing of that announcement was that Deutsche Post, whose initial public stock offering could occur this fall or early next year, wants tantilizing logistics tidbits to offer investment analysts.

The more those analysts are convinced that the tidbits can be efficiently digested, the more the Yellow Giant's current owner - the German government - will be able to collect for selling up to 49 percent of its shares.

Perhaps that's why Germany's economics minister, Werner Mueller, has been accused by critics of doing too much to protect Deutsche Post's monopoly on letter delivery.

The government - anticipating a influx of billions of Deutsche marks into the Treasury as a result of Deutsche Post's IPO - has directed that the Yellow Giant be allowed to keep its postal rates at their current high level until that monopoly expires at the end of 2002. But some companies that suffer from the high postal rates are threatening a court case.

Meanwhile, the European Commission could knock Deutsche Post's IPO plans for a loop - perhaps spurring a postponement - if it rules next month that the German government allowed Deutsche Post to cross-subsidize its money-losing parcel-post operation with profits from its lucrative letter monopoly. The commission, the executive arm of the European Union, began that inquiry last summer at the urging of Deutsche Post's biggest parcel-delivery competitor, United Parcel Service.

In the event that Brussels finds against the German government, the commission could in theory require the Yellow Giant to refund billions of Deutsche marks - hurting the company's bottom line and putting a crimp in further expansion plans.

But postal officials in Bonn claim to be confident that the commission will agree with their argument that the benefits of the letter-mail monopoly have been offset by the requirements that Deutsche Post provide universal postal service and meet huge pension obligations.

Whatever that outcome, it is clear that Deutsche Post - like a pelican with a bloated throat pouch - is now concentrating on swallowing and then digesting its load of acquisitions and partnerships.

Because Deutsche Post and Lufthansa together own slightly more than 50 percent of DHL International, pooling those voting rights in the new joint company will give the two German giants more influence over the leading international integrator. That influence would increase if Aerologic or its parents were able to buy more DHL shares from Japan Airlines or a German investment group.

And that isn't the only new move by the Yellow Giant. Just days before announcing its partnership deals with Lufthansa Cargo, Deutsche Post bought a 10 percent share of the London-based Global Freight Exchange, which operates an electronic marketplace for airlines and freight forwarders to buy and sell cargo capacity on aircraft.

All of these deals were driven partly by Deutsche Post's acquistion of AEI, which has now become the Danzas AEI Intercontinental Business Unit. Deutsche Post predicts that its Lufthansa partnerships - while falling short of a deeper cooperative venture - ''will be beneficial for all of our companies, including AEI and Danzas.''

Pelicans, which live near seas and lakes, are known to be ungainly in trying to get around on land, but impressive in flight. Perhaps that's a sign for Deutsche Post to look skyward, toward more of an air-freight future.