Ryanair founder Tony Ryan
Aidan Crawley  /  EPA file
Ryan founded Ryanair, Europe’s biggest no-frills airline, with just one 15-seat airplane.
updated 10/3/2007 3:08:41 PM ET 2007-10-03T19:08:41

Tony Ryan, the founder of Europe's biggest no-frills airline, Ryanair Holdings PLC, died Wednesday after a long illness, the airline said. He was 71.

Ryan founded Ryanair in 1986 with just one 15-seat plane. A year later it began flights between Dublin and London, kick-starting rapid growth has propelled it to an estimated 52 million passengers this year.

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

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

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said he was saddened to hear of Ryan's death, calling his airline one of Ireland's greatest business triumphs.

"The establishment of Ryanair and its subsequent 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," Ahern said.

Irish billionaire businessman Sir Anthony O'Reilly, who heads 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. That will be his epitaph. It could not be more appropriate," O'Reilly said in a statement.

Born in Thurles, County Tipperary in 1936, Ryan was the son of a train driver.

His initial fortune came from Guinness Peat Aviation, the commercial aircraft sales and leasing company he set up in 1975. He sold that company in 2000 after the cancellation of its planned stock market listing in 1992 led to a dramatic collapse in its value.

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