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'Farewell to a wonderful beast': Branson's homage to Boeing 747

By Tim Hepher

PARIS, Jan 31 (Reuters) - British billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, who was inspired to start an airline with a single Boeing 747 after getting stuck on a delayed flight, paid tribute to the Queen of the Skies on Tuesday as Boeing delivered its final jumbo jet.

"It gave America and Boeing the leadership role in aviation," said Branson, the son of a flight attendant who founded Virgin Atlantic in 1984 after cold-calling Boeing as a successful record publisher to ask about a second-hand 747.

The first aircraft, named Maiden Voyager, became part of a fleet of 30 Boeing 747s that challenged British Airways and U.S. carriers for a slice of the lucrative transatlantic market.

Branson's latest aerospace venture, Virgin Orbit, aims to launch satellites from a rocket released from under the wing of a 747 dubbed Cosmic Girl, formerly part of the same airline.

"It's okay for the occasional mission for space but the fuel costs flying daily backwards and forwards across the Atlantic are just too expensive now," Branson told Reuters.

"So farewell to a wonderful beast."

Thousands of Boeing employees – including some of the so-called "Incredibles" who developed the jet in the 1960s – gathered near Seattle on Tuesday to watch the last delivery of the 747, which brought affordable air travel to the masses.

Boeing said on Monday it would expand production for the single-aisle 737 into the huge Everett plant that housed the 747 for over 50 years, reflecting the ability of much smaller models to serve medium routes and now even cross the Atlantic. (Reporting by Tim Hepher Editing by Mark Potter)