As Gatwick doubles its "snow fleet" to battle the big freeze, Channel 4 News discovers Heathrow reduced its snow defence budget by two-thirds despite forecasting record passenger numbers.

Heathrow has cut its spending on snow clearing equipment by two-thirds (Image: Heathrow)

Heathrow's operator BAA reduced its investment in snow clearing equipment from £1.5m last year, to just £500,000 in the current financial year.

BAA's chief executive Colin Matthews has apologised to the thousands of stranded passengers lining Heathrow's terminals, promising a full "forensic investigation" into the crisis.

Meanwhile, Gatwick Airport is preparing to receive its third extra snow plough in as many days.

Gatwick, which is owned by US group Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP), has invested £8m in snow clearing equipment this year, and has ordered six new snow ploughs from Zurich this month alone.

A spokesman for Gatwick told Channel 4 News that by the end of the winter season it plans to double its fleet from last weeks' 47 to a total of 96. Gatwick currently has 29 snow ploughs in its fleet.

Heathrow, the world's largest international airport with two runways, has a fleet of 69 vehicles allocated to keep the runways clear - including 28 snow ploughs.

Last week, BAA stepped up its pre-tax profit forecast for the year by 15 per cent, to £1.12bn, after reporting "robust trends" for the first three-quarters of 2010.

BAA, which is controlled by Spanish group Ferrovial, said it expected the number of passengers passing through Heathrow to climb 6.2 per cent to "an all time record" of 70.4m.

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A BAA spokeswoman for Heathrow told Channel 4 News that last year it invested three times as much in snow clearing equipment - spending £1.5m mainly on de-icing fluid and storage for the fluid (each de-icer vehicle holds 60,000 litres).

BAA said it spent its snow budget of half a million pounds on new electronic gauges to remotely measure de-icing levels, which helps to speed up the process of ordering de-icer.

BAA told Channel 4 News: "There is £6m worth of snow and ice fighting technology in operation at Heathrow airport. An extra £500k was invested this year alone to upgrade equipment. In line with our planned investment for the airport, we are looking to spend an additional £3m on this airfield equipment in the next four years."

However, Channel 4 News understands that the £500,000 is not an extra spend for the year, it is the only spend for 2010 within a pre-decided 5-year investment programme that is approved by the Civil Aviation Authority.

In a press release issued last month, which has since vanished from the group's website, Heathrow claimed it had "been working for months to ensure the UK's hub airport will once again be prepared for the onset of winter".

Costs of de-icing aircraft

A de-icing lorry can cost as much as £300,000 - the chassis alone costs £85,000, while a custom-made body can cost in excess of £200,000.

These can be bought more cheaply, but many airlines choose to buy premium products which are more expensive, one supplier told Channel 4 News.

Each of these would then have to be filled with a full tanker load of de-icer, but Univar, the supplier of de-icing fluid for Heathrow and other airports told Channel 4 News it could not give even a rough estimate of this wide-ranging cost.

A snowplough, however, such as the one used by many airports in the UK generally costs between £20,000 and £25,000.

Mick Rix, of the union GMB, which represents Heathrow's maintenance staff, told Channel 4 News: "They are having to spend money on de-icing planes because the planes are frozen, having not moved because the runways haven't been cleared. It's up to the airport owner to keep the runways clear so the planes can keep moving.

"BAA makes huge profits but clearly hasn't put those profits back into Heathrow."

Next year, BAA plans to spend £1bn upgrading its terminals and bringing their "competitive advantage" into line with each other.

However, none of this will be directed towards snow maintenance - which will analysed in Mr Matthews' forensic review.

John Strickland, Director of JLS Consulting and former British Airways manager, told Channel 4 News: "Gatwick had its own recent two day closure, and learning from this ordered more (snow ploughs).

He pointed out that comparing Heathrow with Stockholm was not to compare like with like – historically, the UK has not suffered from particularly heavy winters.

However, he added that: "There clearly needs to be a thorough wash-up and review of lessons to be learned and actions implemented to cope better for the future."

GIP paid £1.5bn for Gatwick last year after the Competition Commission forced BAA to sell it on the basis of BAA's dominance in the south-east as owners of Heathrow and Stansted.