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AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — Coming next to Europe’s leading low-cost airline ... F-16s?

Kel Ryan, who retired last year as director of sales and marketing at Ryanair, visited Aviano this week and got a ride in an Air Force jet Tuesday.

Ryan said the company that carries his family name is going to need dozens of additional airplanes to keep up with customer demand. And after Tuesday’s ride, Ryan said he’s rethinking what type of planes to buy.

“Maybe we should cancel the 737s and get these F-16s instead,” he joked.

Ryan visited the base as part of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe’s Project Connect program, which exposes airmen to the leadership skills of successful people outside the military.

“In some areas, the military isn’t that much different than running a business,” said Capt. Wally Contreras, who coordinates the Project Connect program at Aviano.

During a speech Wednesday, Ryan pointed out a few of those similarities and shared some of the company’s secrets for success.

Ryanair expects to ferry 35 million passengers on 250 routes between 21 European countries this year, Ryan said. Quite a success story for a company that launched its first plane — a 15-seater that carried passengers from Ireland to London each day — in 1985.

The company, he said, has succeeded in part because of its will to win, much like the military. It also prides itself on offering career advancement opportunities and getting employees to buy into the future.

“The job nearly becomes more important than anything else you do,” he said.

Ryanair also stresses teamwork and that every job is important to the mission.

“The guys unloading the bags are just as important as the guys flying the airplane,” he said.

There are other similarities, as well.

Several of the airports the company currently uses — including Stanstead in England and Hahn in Germany — were formerly home to the U.S. military.

“Once again, I have to thank you. Keep on building those runways,” he joked.

On a cautionary side, Ryan said his biggest concern for the company’s future is complacency. When he joined, there were about 50 employees.

“Everybody was expected to roll up their sleeves and help,” he said. There are now about 3,000 employees and the company has become one of the biggest carriers in Europe.

Ryan did see a few differences between his company and the military, though.

“This is the most organized day of my life,” he said about a schedule that was to take him around to several stops around base. “The last time my life was this organized was when my mother took me to my first communion.”

It all comes down to savings ...

According to its Web site — one of the most popular online destinations for travelers in Europe — Ryanair hopes to be ferrying 70 million passengers a year by 2012.

This year, the company projects about 35 million consumers will hop around Europe via Ryanair. Though the vast majority of those passengers carry European passports, thousands of them live in American military communities in Europe.

Why?

P-R-I-C-E.

Passengers can save hundreds of euros on some routes with Ryanair.

Of course, there aren’t any frills. No peanuts, coffee or soda unless you pay for them. Certainly no movies. Ryanair generally doesn’t provide service to the larger airports that serve major carriers. So there’s an inconvenience of traveling to a smaller airport that might be further away.

That’s not always the case, though. For those based at Aviano or Vicenza, the airport in Treviso is just as close as the one in Venice. In England, the Ryanair hub at Stanstead is much closer to RAF Lakenheath and Mildenhall than other major British airports. Hahn, a Ryanair hub in Germany, is about an hour away from Wiesbaden.

Asked about a possible Ryanair route to the States, he said the possibility is pretty slim.

“You can never say never,” Kel Ryan, whose brother founded Ryanair in 1985, said during a visit to Aviano Air Base this week. But the company figures that an expanded Europe with about 450 million inhabitants is a substantial customer base in itself.

For more information on the company, visit its Web site at: www.ryanair.com.

— By Kent Harris

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

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