Emirates Air Line, the first urban cable car in the UK, has opened in London ahead of schedule and in time for the start of the 2012 Olympics. The £44m service, which spans across the River Thames between the Royal Docks and the O2 arena in North Greenwich, is London's latest tourist attraction, providing passengers with a bird's-eye view of the capital.

London Mayor Boris Johnson, who officially launched the cable car and was one of the first passengers to ride on it, said the Emirates Air Line was essential to improving transport infrastructure in the surrounding area.

"It is a staggeringly beautiful view of London. It is a panorama of the most opportunity-rich area of the city and people are already showing a real interest in buying into it. People are coming from all over the world for the Olympics and I want them to see the areas they can invest in. As the world's eyes focus on our city, I can think of no better message to send out across the globe."

The service will operate between 7am and 9pm throughout the week, with 34 cabins arriving at each station at 30-second intervals. Journeys will take approximately five minutes during peak periods and 10 minutes at other times, when the service will be slowed down to allow tourists and other passengers to enjoy the views and take in some of the city's iconic landmarks. During the most demanding periods, the service can transport up to 2,500 people across the Thames an hour.

As both the Excel Centre at the Royal Docks and the O2 are due to host Olympic events, London's latest transport development will provide greater access to the two venues throughout the event.

Transport for London secured part-funding from Dubai-based company Emirates Airline to sponsor the project on a 10-year deal for £36m. The total cost of the project was £60m, with construction accounting for around £44m.

The project has been criticised over Transport for London paying between £18m and £26m toward the cost of construction, especially after Johnson initially said that funding wound not be required from the taxpayer. "The aim is to fund the construction of the scheme entirely from private finance," he said in 2010.

There has been further criticism over the price of using the service. A one-way ticket costs £4.30, almost a pound per minute on its quickest journey. The cost for Oyster card users is £3.20 and a "frequent flyer" pass, offering 10 single journeys, can be purchased for £16.