So do the pilots actually do any flying or does the autopilot do all the work? Well it depends on the day and it depends on your definition of work – and it helps firstly by explaining how things worked before modern automation in aircraft was established.
Until the late 1960’s large commercial aircraft had up to 5 crew members in the flight deck. The pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, the navigator and the radio operator. As automation and technology improved in the 60’s and 70’s this was reduced to 4 crew members (navigation and communication being carried out by the one crew member), followed by 3 (pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer) and then eventually just 2 crew members* as is seen on most commercial flights today (those roles now being titled Captain and First Officer).
Today then, the job of 5 crew members is done by 2 – with the help of a lot of computer technology and automation (without which the workload would be too much for 2 people to safely fly a commercial aircraft). So on an average commercial flight the pilot will manually do the take-off and the autopilot will then go in a few minutes after. It will stay in until usually a few minutes before landing at which point the pilot will take control and land the plane manually. In between those two points, the pilots still have to be just as alert to program the autopilot and make sure that it does what it is expected to do. In essence while the autopilot is engaged, pilots are more like IT managers.
* It’s not unusual for longhaul flights to have more than 2 pilots on board but this is to allow for rest during the flight. Only 2 pilots are required to fly the plane.