Ryanair was a small airline on the verge of collapse when its then deputy chief executive made a pilgrimage to Dallas in 1991. Michael O'Leary came back to Dublin after visiting...

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DUBLIN, Ireland — Ryanair was a small airline on the verge of collapse when its then deputy chief executive made a pilgrimage to Dallas in 1991. Michael O’Leary came back to Dublin after visiting with Herbert Kelleher, the guru of Southwest Airlines, with a new vision for how to make money by lowering airfares and filling up his flights.

“It was one of these road-to-Damascus things,” O’Leary said. “We saw Kelleher and his crew do it — and we said, ‘Why can’t we do this in Europe?”‘

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Using the Southwest blueprint, O’Leary and his staff have turned Ryanair into the most profitable airline company in the world. The upstart Irish carrier operating out of a squat building on the edge of Dublin International Airport is flying circles around the most revered names in European aviation: British Airways, Air France, Alitalia and Germany’s Lufthansa. By the end of the decade, Ryanair hopes to carry 50 million passengers annually, which would make it Europe’s largest carrier.

O’Leary has helped revolutionize European aviation, making cheap flights a habit for millions of people, giving birth to a host of low-budget rivals while driving state-subsidized air carriers into bankruptcy and transforming the economies of formerly obscure regions whose airports have become Ryanair destinations.

The company also has come to epitomize the swashbuckling vitality of new entrepreneurs from an economically revitalized, opportunistic Ireland.

“This could only have been an Irish story,” boasted O’Leary, now Ryanair’s chief executive, who once drove a tank up to a London airport terminal building to challenge a competitor’s claim of lower fares. “The Irish built the rails, we built the roads and now we’re building the airways as well.”

O’Leary and his crew believe the days of ever-shrinking airfares are far from over — and many observers agree. “Sometimes O’Leary talks utter nonsense,” said Simon Calder, author of “No Frills,” a history of low-cost air travel. “But any other airline executive would love to have his problems. Aviation is a complete basket-case industry, and he’s shown you can make serious money at it by freeing up consumers.”

To carve a piece of the business, Ryanair adopted key parts of the Southwest formula: It slimmed down the number of routes it flew and operated only Boeing 737s to cut repair costs. Rather than pay high fees to fly into London’s Heathrow or Gatwick airports, Ryanair settled upon Stansted, a new, gleaming but virtually empty airport northeast of London. Not only were landing fees lower, but because the runways were virtually deserted, Ryanair could fly in and turn around quickly, cramming in extra flights each day.

The London-to-Dublin route, which takes just under an hour, quickly became the lucrative base for a series of other short-hop routes.

Ryanair is not every consumer’s cup of tea. While airline officials boast of its on-time record and efficiency, the company has a reputation for handling customer complaints in a manner that ranges from brusque to downright rude. “Cheap but definitely not cheerful,” was the verdict of one passenger in an e-mail to the Skytrax Web site of passenger opinions.