Under the flamboyant leadership of outspoken Michael O'Leary Ryanair has become the leading low-fare airline in Europe.

With a ruthless attitude to competitors and with enormous drive, Mr O'Leary, aged 45, has created an airline which has offered air travel to people who never dreamed they would take to the skies.

Ever aware of the need to stay in the public eye, the dynamic Mr O'Leary has built the Irish carrier into a leading airline now carrying nearly 40 million passengers a year.

Started by the Ryan family in 1985, Ryanair switched to a budget operation in the 1990s and can now boast more than 750 scheduled short-haul flights a day to 115 locations throughout Europe.

As well as its British bases, Ryanair also has sites in Charleroi in Belgium, Frankfurt Hahn, Milan Bergamo, Stockholm Skavsta, Rome Ciampino and Barcelona Girona, with Marseille coming on line in November and Bremen in Germany around April 2007.

The father-of-three from Mullingar in County Westmeath, has never really worried about who he upsets and is prepared to do practically anything to publicise or drive forward his airline.

At press conferences he has sported the robes of a Roman Catholic priest or of a highwayman to make his points.

His utterances have often been pithy and memorable. In an outburst against what he perceived as over-zealous airport security during recent weeks, he said that Osama bin Laden would be "laughing his head off in his cave" at the thought of children and little old ladies being rigorously searched at security points.

Birmingham International Airport - where Ryanair still operates services to Dublin - and British Airways have long been a subject of Mr O'Leary's derision.

Last year he claimed BIA was "overdependent" on British Airways, predicting the UK flagship airline would pull out of Birmingham within the next five years. Neither the airport or BA were impressed.

Mr O'Leary has also been known to refer to himself and his crew as "just a bunch of Paddies" while he once described himself as "a gobshite". He has called politicians "loonies" and described the European Commission as "an evil empire".

Much of the success of Ryanair has been achieved by Mr O'Leary's tracking down of little-used European airports where his planes can turn around quickly.

He has generally been welcomed with open arms at these places, with the airport management keen on the extra business and the towns glad of the increase in tourism.

The strategy has not been without its problems, though, as some have objected to the long distances between the airport and the big city to which travellers thought they were flying.

Hahn in Germany, for example, is many miles from Frankfurt, which it serves, while Girona is a good distance from Barcelona.

So low have been the fares that Ryanair offered that passengers have sometimes paid more in airport taxes than for their aircraft seat.

Encouraged to travel, millions of Britons have discovered new destinations at a time when entry into the EU has offered some of the poorer European countries an economic boost.

Ryanair customers have found themselves flying to Polish cities they can hardly pronounce. Others have been encouraged to make their homes in places such as southern France thanks to the ease of travelling home regularly with the Irish carrier.

Mr O'Leary began working for Ryanair founder Tony Ryan in 1988 and became chief executive in 1993.

He quickly realised the need to strip away all but the bare essentials from flights. Complimentary meals were scrapped, people sat where they wanted, there were no sick bags or window blinds or headrest covers.

Wealthy beyond most people's dreams, Mr O'Leary shows no signs of easing back as he approaches middle age.