Air traffic and maritime container traffic are expected to double over the next 20 years, putting further pressure on rail and road traffic, the ministers said in a statement at the meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria. "The trend is towards more congestion and, without effective policy intervention, much worse congestion," the ministers stated. The huge demand for container shipping is leading to delays in the delivery of goods and higher costs for importers and exporters. The situation is not likely to ease soon, according to forecasts, as China's booming economy is expected to pick up any excess capacity. Road, business and freight traffic congestion costs in the EU shave an average one per cent off annual gross domestic product in the bloc, according to statistics presented at the meeting. In the UK and France the cost is about 1.5 per cent. CLECAT, the European association of transport and logistic suppliers, said on average, container traffic in European ports has increased an average of 7 per cent a year over the last 20 years. Meanwhile traffic along the Asia-Europe route grew by 15 per cent a year in the last few years, the organisation said in a briefing statement presented to the European Commission earlier this month. Between 2005 and 2011, container traffic is expected to grow by 7.8 per cent a year, while European port capacity is forecast to increase by 4.2 per cent a year, CLECAT stated. "Although the overall level of congestion is not as alarming as in the US, Asian or Russian ports, a number of European ports already find themselves in a difficult situation," the organisation stated. "All the more if one considers that a port is said to be at full capacity when 80 per cent is used, because there is then very little scope to deal with peaks." North European deep seaports averaged 86.6 per cent capacity use in 2004 according to figures from Drewry Shipping Consultants. Antwerp, Rotterdam, Bremerhaven, Hamburg, and Southampton ports were all above 90 per cent capacity use during the year. In its latest report Drewry Shipping Consultants estimates that about 73 per cent of container ships arrived late in European ports in the first quarter of 2007, compared to 45 per cent in the same period last year. During the quarter, 23 per cent of vessels arrived one calendar day late, with another 29 per cent arrived two or more days late. Preliminary port figures for March 2007 show global container handling activity grew by 8.3 per cent year-on-year, Drewry stated. Meanwhile CLECAT noted that the UK ports of Felixstowe and Southampton have already had to deal with the consequences of lack of capacity. Some ship operators opted to unload cargo in Rotterdam or Antwerp and then fed the freight back to the UK by shipping on smaller vessels through alternative ports, the organisation sated. In Rotterdam, ship operators, barge companies and other stakeholders have set up a group called "Hinterlink". "One of the group's ideas was to set fixed, synchronized time slots for trans-loading cargo from ocean going vessels to barges," CLECAT stated. "According to pilot runs, this idea was successful." Another idea was to improve data exchange among maritime industry partners. A protocol is being developed that would make it the standard for Europe's entire ocean and inland waterways network. In the ports of Felixstowe and Southampton, the freight forwarder Kuehne + Nagel has established an intermodal rail service that moves cargo as quickly as possible off the docks to staging locations inland, CLECAT stated. The company has reduces the number of containers stored at the terminals. The meeting in Sofia was attended by members of the European Conference of Ministers of Transport along with their counterparts from Australia, Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand and the US. Freight costs are rising by about two per cent a year, according to estimates by Morgan Stanley.