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Millennium Wheel may not be able to stand upright on New Year's Eve

THE MILLENNIUM Wheel, one of the showpieces of the capital's celebrations, may not be ready for its 31 December deadline.

British Airways, sponsor of the pounds 20m project, said yesterday that the Ferris wheel, which was to dominate the London skyline on New Year's Eve, was proving more difficult to erect than thought.

A meticulously planned operation to haul upright the 450ft-high, 1,500- tonne wheel beside the Thames had to be abandoned on Friday because of several hitches. A spokesman said at the time that the lifting process, which was described as a "simple grip and pull" operation, would be postponed for a "few days".

This was soon lengthened to 10 days and yesterday it was announced that it would be "at least four weeks". British Airways said guardedly yesterday that it believed the completion of the task was "still possible" in time for the New Year revelries. "This is a tough project and we will resume the lift when the conditions are right," it added.

On Friday the initial problem was the microwave signals from the assembled hordes of expectant media, which were interfering with the monitoring process. Once they had been sorted out, there was trouble with a socket holding the lifting cables.

Temporary lifting cables are attached to a socket, which is in turn attached to the giant wheel, now lying flat on a number of support platforms in the Thames. The socket did not align properly, resulting in four cables coming loose and the lifting operation having to be abandoned. British Airways said the socket was now being redesigned by the manufacturers in Grenoble, France.

"It will then have to be retested and in the meantime we are rescheduling other work so that we can make up for the delay. Some work was going to be done when the wheel was upright but we have realised that we can do it on the ground and that is what is happening," the spokesman said.

Admitting that the socket could not be tested in situ before the lift was tried, the spokesman insisted British Airways had confidence in all those involved. "We are not thinking along the lines of it not being lifted in time for the millennium. We appreciate that Friday was a setback but we believe we have the best design and we are hoping to resume again."