ONE of the south's most colourful and best loved businessmen, Peter Bath, has died at the age of 79.

Mr Bath, the chairman of the Bath Travel empire and a founder member of the Association of British Travel Agents, passed away on Friday after a short illness.

He became something of a legend in the industry, renowned for insisting on the personal touch both in Bath Travel and its tour operating arm Palmair.

Mr Bath was famous for personally seeing off all his company's flights, a tradition which delighted hundreds of thousands of Palmair passengers over the years.

The family home at Avon is under the Hurn flight path and he would also often wave from his garden to Palmair pilots and passengers as they returned to Bournemouth.

It was after the war when he left the Royal Navy that PJ', as he was affectionately known to friends, family, employees and clients (and Petie' to his grandchildren), took over the Bath Travel business founded by his father Reginald Ernest Bath in 1924.

He set about expanding the company, from a single site in Albert Road, Bournemouth - where the head office is still located, to more than 60 offices across several counties.

In 1958 he started up the Palmair tour operation to Majorca from Bournemouth and added a number of destinations over the years.

Palmair launched its own airline in 1993, flying the famous Whisper Jet and it soon became firmly established as Bournemouth's very own airline. It will have been operating from Bournemouth for 50 years in 2007.

Such was the carrier's success that in 2003 it was voted the world's best airline for customer satisfaction by the readers of Which Magazine.

Mr Bath was the recipient of numerous awards over the years. In 2003 he was inducted into the British Travel Industry's Hall of Fame, join- ing such illustrious names as Sir Freddie Laker, Sir Fred Pontin and Sir Richard Branson.

In 2005 he was awarded the MBE for services both to travel and charity.

Just this year he received a national award for a lifetime's contribution to the travel industry. He was also the holder of a Rotary International citation.

Recently he joked: "At my age that is more than enough."

As recently as September he took to the skies in a helicopter for the short journey from home to the airport to make sure he could see one of his flights away despite the closure of the Avon Causeway Bridge.

Mr Bath is survived by Liz, his wife of 56 years, sons Stephen and Andrew, who are joint managing directors of Bath Travel, and daughters Sallie and Christine, training and customer liaison director at the company.

Stephen told the Daily Echo last night: "Obviously he was a father figure to me but in the business he was seen in exactly the same way by hundreds of colleagues.

"He has always been a hard act to follow, with his dedication to Bath Travel and Palmair clients 24 hours a day.

"Even in the past two months when we haven't been able to call on his advice because of his illness, we have asked each other at our board meetings, what would PJ do? His influence will be around for many years to come."

Stephen added: "I think it's fair to say that Bath Travel won't be quite the same without him but I am sure he will still be keeping an eye on us!"