Unique Knaapen retires from Bombardier after 33 years

After more than 30 years at Bombardier, Leo Knaapen’s philosophy is: “Sometimes you serve, sometimes you lead and sometimes you represent.”

Leo Knaapen was lauded at our CJI London 2022 conference.

THERE ARE MORE than 100 associations lobbying on behalf of the business aviation industry and as many regulators. Leo Knaapen, who has retired as Bombardier’s chief – Industry Affairs after 33 years at the manufacturer, knows the strengths and weaknesses of all of them.

Knaapen joined Bombardier in 1989 as editor of in-house publication Canadair News. He soon ended up writing press releases for the new Canadair Regional Jet. Communications and public relations quickly became his full-time job. He was also a Bombardier spokesman.

In 2007 Bombardier created the role of chief – Industry Affairs to help it deal with regulators – like ICAO, the FAA, Transport Canada and EASA – and aviation associations and other organisations, which he calls centres of influence. “In industry relations, sometimes you serve, sometimes you lead and sometimes you represent,” says Knaapen. “It all depends on the situation.”

For the first few years he was responsible for both commercial and business aviation. When the company restructured, he chose to stick with business jets.

“Leo is a singularly unique individual holding a singularly unique position,” said Kurt Edwards, director general, International Business Aviation Council (IBAC). “No other OEM has an industry affairs director and Leo’s blend of energy, foresight, and commitment has been a key driver in Bombardier’s active support of IBAC as an industry partner.”

“The [ICAO] rules did not make sense for business aviation…”

In March 2022 the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) awarded Knaapen its Silk Scarf Award for his service to the industry.

“For over three decades, Leo has been a constant, tireless and effective champion for business aviation throughout the world. As a result, we are a better, stronger, safer, more sustainable, and more cohesive industry,” said Ed Bolen, president and CEO of NBAA. “Leo has always put the good of the industry first and demanded the same from everyone else. He always found a way to bring out our best.”

‘Leo has been a tremendous rock …’

It is easy to find associations who are keen to acknowledge him.

“Leo has been a tremendous rock for the business aviation industry worldwide. Leo dedicated his career towards advancing the business aviation industry and the industry would not be where it is today without his drive, amicability, and vision,” said the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA). (It wanted its comments to come from the whole organisation). “EBAA considers Leo an authentic business aviation influencer, remains thankful for his unwavering support and wishes him the best in his next steps in life,” it said.

“Leo has been both an anchor and mover in the Asian business aviation industry since the beginning,” said Max Motschmann, vice chair, Board of Directors, Asian Business Aviation Association. “His immense passion, extra-ordinary knowledge, engaging personality, and wealth of international connections drive business aviation forward.”

One area where associations highlight Knaapen as a leader is sustainability. In early 2017 he started meeting business aviation associations to stress how important sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) was to the future of the industry.

In September 2017 he invited a group of associations to a meeting in Montreal. “Rather than hosting it at Bombardier I booked rooms at ICAO. I wanted it to be neutral and make it clear it was for the industry – not just Bombardier,” says Knaapen. He got a mixed buy in. Some associations already agreed with him. Others took more convincing.

In 2018 the SAF Business Aviation Coalition was formed. “When we think about the many contributions that Leo Knaapen has made to move business aviation forward, the one that is most dear to my heart is sustainability,” says Timothy Obitts, president and CEO, of the National Air Transport Association. “It was Leo who brought the various business aviation associations around the world together and asked a simple question: what were we going to do about sustainability and meeting our commitment regarding climate change? Simply put, if we did not act, commercial aviation was going to leave us in their wake.”

Obitts says: “Leo prodded us along to form the SAF Business Aviation Coalition and help start the remarkable journey of educating our industry regarding the importance of sustainable aviation fuel.”

Leo Knaapen has retired from Bombardier after more than three decades.

Partnership with regulators

Working with regulators was also an important part of his job. Knaapen regularly met with the FAA in Washington and EASA in Cologne. But as the hometown manufacturer, Knaapen spent a lot of time with ICAO. “ICAO sets the global standard. States can of course change its regulations, but it leads the way and many smaller or emerging countries use its guidelines,” says Knaapen. All ICAO decisions are voted on in its General Assembly and Knaapen spent a lot of time working with its 193 member countries to get consensus. “The one thing with ICAO is it only changes standards once a year – so if you miss your chance you have to wait 11 months,”

One of his campaigns at ICAO was changing the rules on fortified doors on aircraft over 1,000lbs – like the Gulfstream G650 or Bombardier’s Global 7500. “This was a real team effort,” he says. “The rules did not make sense for business aviation and we worked closely with our competitors on this.”

Knaapen officially retired in March but is staying on as a consultant until the end of 2022. He may also stay on longer for some specific projects, on a part-time basis, working with Pierre Pyun who leads Bombardier’s Government and Industry Affairs team.

NATA’s Obitts adds: “Leo has become a good friend. In fact, my kids call him Uncle Leo. I get emotional thinking about our industry without Leo. He is irreplaceable. I find solace in knowing that Leo is the type of person that will always stay involved. I look forward to breaking bread with Uncle Leo for many years to come.”