DUBLIN (Reuters) - Irish entrepreneur Tony Ryan, who founded Europe’s biggest low-cost airline Ryanair, died on Wednesday at 71 after suffering from a long illness, his family said.
The son of a Tipperary railwayman, Ryan set up the airline 23 years ago, and it has since grown to carry 50 million passengers a year.
Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O’Leary, considered by many to be Ryan’s protegee, described him as “one of the greatest Irishmen of the 20th century”.
“It was a privilege to work for him and to learn from him. I will miss his guidance, encouragement and friendship,” said O’Leary, who started working Ryanair for a share of profits and set about revolutionising it as a no-frills budget airline.
Ryan, who joined then Irish state airline Aer Lingus as a dispatch clerk, worked his way up to leasing manager before founding his own leasing company Guinness Peat Aviation, later known as GPA.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern described Ryan’s contribution to aviation as “immense”.
“Through Guinness Peat Aviation he placed Ireland centre stage in the global aviation business,” Ahern said.
“His legacy in this respect is clearly evident today as Ireland remains one of the key global centres for the international aircraft leasing business.”
Ryan amassed a personal fortune, estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, and became the middleman of the world aviation industry.
He retained a stake in Ryanair and held airline investments in Asia. His other passions included vineyards and stud farms.
Irish billionaire and former rugby star Anthony O’Reilly called Ryan a “true pioneer”.
“He was immensely hard-working, talented, witty and at times, a hard task master,” he said.
“He changed the skies of Europe, not just for the Irish people, but indeed for all Europeans. That will be his epitaph.”