Ryanair Pioneer Tony Ryan Dies at Age 71

DUBLIN, Ireland_Tony Ryan, an aviation entrepreneur who founded leading European budget carrier Ryanair, died Wednesday after a long illness, the airline and his family said. He was 71.

Ryanair took flight in 1985 with a single 15-seat plane. By the time Ryan floated the company on the Irish and British stock exchanges in 1997, Ryanair Holdings PLC was expanding across the European continent with eye-popping fares, new routes and trademark boastful marketing.

Today, it employs 4,800 people, operates 557 routes in 26 countries and plans to carry more than 50 million people this year.

The Ryan family said in a statement he died in one of his homes in County Kildare, west of Dublin, following protracted hospital treatment in Ireland and the United States for an undisclosed illness.

The family said they were "proud of Tony's many achievements, of his spirit of entrepreneurship which created enterprise and opportunity for many people in this country and abroad."

Ryanair shattered an air market in Ireland dominated by state flag carriers Aer Lingus and British Airways. Its 1990s rise foreshadowed a 21st century market in which Ryanair sets ruthless standards and state-owned carriers are dead or dying.

Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O'Leary, a Ryan protege, said he had left an astonishing legacy.

"It was a privilege to work for him and to learn from him," O'Leary said. "I will miss his guidance, encouragement and friendship. We are all determined that Ryanair will continue to carry his name with pride and distinction."

Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said Ryanair's "rise to become one of the leading carriers in Europe is one of the greatest Irish economic success stories and will be rightly regarded as perhaps his greatest legacy."

Irish newspaper tycoon Sir Anthony O'Reilly, chief executive of Independent News & Media PLC, called Ryan "a true pioneer."

"He changed the skies of Europe, not just for the Irish people, but indeed for all Europeans," O'Reilly said.

Ryan, the son of a train driver, was born in Thurles, County Tipperary, in 1936. His first job was as a clerk at Aer Lingus, the state-owned monopoly, where he eventually won promotion to be director of aircraft leasing.

His initial fortune came from Guinness Peat Aviation, a commercial aircraft sales and leasing company he set up in conjunction with Aer Lingus in 1975. In the 1980s the Shannon, western Ireland-based company became the largest aircraft-leasing operation in the world.

Guinness Peat's value plummeted amid crushing debts and an aborted stock listing in 1992. But when the restructured business was taken over by General Electric and sold eight years later, Ryan received an estimated €55 million (US$77 million) personal profit.

He died with a personal fortune estimated in excess of €800 million (US$1.1 billion) and was seventh on the 2007 Sunday Times list of Ireland's richest people. He remained a major Ryanair stockholder, as well as a minority owner of Singapore-based Tiger Airways.

He lived largely as a tax exile in Monte Carlo but maintained a massive Irish country estate and owned thoroughbred breeding ranches in Tipperary and in the U.S. state of Kentucky.

Ryan is survived by three sons. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.