Knut Hammarskjold was a Swedish diplomat who served in Montreal for 18 years as the second executive director of the International Air Transport Association, which regulates the interests of most of the world’s commercial airlines. He was the nephew of the United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold, who was killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1961. Knut Hammerskjold, who died at his home in Lidingo, Sweden, on Jan. 3, two weeks shy of his 90th birthday, considered his distinguished uncle as a second father.
“There was an intriguing aura of mystery and of things left unsaid in his conversations, which added to his fascination,” said long-time friend Diana Thébaud-Nicholson. “He was a Renaissance man with many facets: diplomat, linguist, patron of the arts, perpetually curious about new things. He was at ease with people of all ages. Normally somewhat reserved, he could be engagingly impulsive.”
Hammarskjold was born into a patrician family in Geneva, Switzerland, on Jan 16, 1922. His grandfather, Hjalmar, had been Sweden’s prime minister during the First World War. His father, who was a court registrar and later a judge, died in 1937 when Knut was only 11 years old and away at a boarding school in the Netherlands. After his father’s death, he was mentored by his uncle Dag.
“He was extraordinarily attached to Dag. He told me he cried for a month when Dag was killed. He had a life-long passion trying to find out exactly what happened to his uncle,” said McGill University ethicist Margaret Somerville, a close friend from his days in Montreal. On the 50th anniversary of the plane crash in 2011 Knut accompanied UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to his uncle’s grave in Uppsala.
New evidence had surfaced to suggest that Dag Hammarskjold’s DC-6 was deliberately shot down while he was on a mission to Africa. Knut called for a new inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death.
“Knut was positively charming and at the same time self-disciplined. He was fiercely intelligent, always capable of surprising those who knew him with the originality and depth of his insights,” said Somerville. For example, he once remarked that lawyers should consider themselves sherpas of the next generation, which engendered the notion that, like sherpas, lawyers “are trusted, tenacious, skilled guides, who open up new terrain, work in a rarefied atmosphere, have great vistas from the peaks they conquer and take others with them to greater heights to enable those others to achieve what has not been previously achieved.”
Hammarskjold developed an interest in civil aviation while working as deputy secretary of the European Free Trade Association. He also acquired Sydsvenska Dagbladet Snalloposten, a small chain of Swedish newspapers, and often referred to himself as “the mini Rupert Murdoch.” In 1966 he was named head of IATA, which had been started in Havana in 1945 to promote reliable and economical international air passenger service.
During his tenure in Montreal key parts of the organization were restructured, an aviation training program for developing nations was inaugurated, and he was largely responsible for establishing the first international billing system to regulate and administrate fares. It has evolved into today’s Billing and Settlement Plan and Cargo Accounts Settlement System and remains the backbone of the modern $300-billion a year industry.
“He led IATA through a period of profound change, a period of turbulence and transformation, during a period when jet transport replaced propeller driven aircraft,” said Perry Flint, IATA’s corporate communications director for the Americas. “It was a period also marked by a rise in hijackings, especially from the United States to Cuba. Hammarskjold was personally involved in one such incident, and went to Cuba to negotiate the release of the aircraft and of those passengers involved who did not want to remain in Cuba.”
Even after he left IATA, Hammarskjold continued to serve as a consultant to the airline industry and regularly attended IATA’s annual general meetings. In 1987 he was appointed head of an independent commission that recommended ways to improve staff efficiency and management at United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
During his almost 30 years in Montreal he served as head of the Atwater Institute, a think tank that focused on the implications of technological advances, and he was a panelist at the 1992 Couchiching conference.
He leaves two sons from his first marriage, two sons from a third marriage and his fourth wife, Inga-Lill.
Special to The Globe and Mail