Michael O'Leary

Ryanair

Michael O'Leary is the man who made air travel affordable for millions of Europeans. When the industry deregulated five years ago, the 41-year-old Irishman was the first to offer discount fares throughout Europe. That has made Ryanair Holdings PLC (RYAAY ) Europe's most profitable player. "We've taken the competition--from British Airways (BA ) to Alitalia to Lufthansa--and blown them away," says O'Leary.

The numbers back him up. In 2002, the airline is expected to post a 49% increase in pretax profits, to $257 million, on a 32% surge in revenues, to $826 million. In the past two years, he has more than doubled passenger manifests, to 15 million, and he plans to do it again by 2005.

O'Leary's philosophy is simple: "Our strategy is like Wal-Mart (WMT ): We pile it high and sell it cheap." That means using small airports, where planes can get back in the air in just 20 minutes. Free meals? Forget about it: Even a bottle of water sets customers back $3. Ryanair's success has inspired copycats. But with fares half those of its nearest rival, this airline is soaring.

KEY ACCOMPLISHMENTS

-- First-half profits of $150 million exceeded those for all of 2001, on net margins of 32.5%

-- Biggest market capitalization of any European airline, at $6 billion

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