Safety fears halt opening of landmark millennium wheel Passengers barred from Millennium wheel Safety inspector closes Millennium wheel banned on passenger safety grounds

IT WAS supposed to be the centrepiece of London's millennium celebrations. Never mind the Dome, the action was all going to be centred on the giant wheel on the banks of the Thames as Big Ben ushered in the 21st century.

More than 300 people had been invited on to the biggest such structure in the world and were confidently expecting to be drinking champagne and enjoying a bird's eye view of the city from their vantage point 450ft up in the air as the new century dawned.

The doom-mongers gloomily predicted that it would never happen. Yesterday they were proved right. Just hours before the party was due to start, British Airways, the sponsor of the pounds 20m wheel, called off the inaugural flight "for safety reasons".

Instead, the assembled guests, made up of competition winners, dignitaries and VIPs will spend this evening on a boat moored on the river.

BA was trying to remain upbeat yesterday and insisted the wheel would still be central to the capital's celebrations but it was a measure of the company's embarrassment that all 250 competition winners have been offered a free return flight to any of the airline's destination around the world .

"The London Eye will still be a part of the celebrations and we are still going ahead with the laser and firework display which officially starts the wheel turning," said a spokeswoman yesterday. "It will be fantastic and we are still having a party for the members of the public who were invited on to the wheel. We have got a barge and it has been specially decorated and there's a disco and champagne. It will still be a very special evening for everyone."

The decision to cancel the ride was made yesterday afternoon after an independent safety consultant found that one of the clutches, which help keep the 32 capsules stable, was not working properly. With no chance of mending and testing it satisfactorily in the time remaining, BA had to cancel.

It was the latest in a long line of setbacks. In September the raising of the wheel from its horizontal position was delayed for several weeks when a cable broke and a new one had to be made in France. It was immediately obvious that finishing the wheel in time for the 31 December celebrations would be touch and go. No sooner was the wheel lifted, after further delays due to torrential rain and winds, than environmental protesters scaled it and lashed themselves to the structure overnight.

BA finally conceded that the wheel might not be ready for the general public by New Year's Eve, but insisted that the invited guests and dignitaries would have their ride.

Then it would close for a few weeks while the area was tidied up and queuing facilities were put in place. Despite its problems, the wheel promised to be a popular attraction, with 500,000 tickets already sold and 15,000 visitors a day expected. Generous estimates suggested that BA could make up to pounds 40m a year in ticket sales.

The airline insisted from the start that it would be a success, despite its teething problems: "The wheel will be turning by New Year's Eve but we need the extra time because we want it to be perfect for those who have paid pounds 7.50 for their ride," said a spokesman in November.

But it was not to be. Tony Blair and Bob Ayling, the chairman of British Airways, will still push the button to send a laser beam across the river to the central part of the wheel, which will start it turning, but then everyone will retire to their barge for the party.

BA was frantically telephoning all the competition winners yesterday to inform them of the change of plan and to reassure them that they would still be the first to ride on the wheel. "It is a great disappointment to everyone but we never compromise on safety," said the spokeswoman.

"We have time to get it all sorted out by the end of January when the first rides are due to take place and we are confident that we can do that."

Millennium countdown, pages 4-6