An observation I occasionally hear from Customers as we chat during the boarding process is that as Pilots we don't actually fly the aircraft very much; rather, the autopilot does all of the work. My initial response is "yes and no". I have flown aircraft in which I did the takeoff and at 400 feet above the ground could engage the autopilot, and the airplane was capable of flying several thousand miles, make the approach, land, and slow to taxi speed. All the Crew had to do was verfiy that the information the plane used to make the flight was correct, disconnect the autopilot and autobrakes, and taxi off the runway and to the gate (and, yes, take over if the system failed!!). Southwest's 737 aircraft do not have autoland, but the autopilot is capable of all other phases of flight.
For the most part, Pilots at Southwest use the autopilot as drivers use the cruise control in the family car: to ease our workload during hours and hours behind the wheel, and to keep us refreshed. We actually "hand fly" the autopilot by inputting commands into the autoflight system to tell the aircraft to climb, descend, and cruise at a particular altitude. Certain reduced visibility approaches require the autopilot to be used until ready for landing. The lowest visibility approaches flown at Southwest actually require the Captain to hand fly the aircraft using special guidance systems to descend to within 50 feet of the ground before we have to see the runway and needing only 700 feet of forward visibility. We can even takeoff with as little as 300 feet of visibility (the length of a football field) at certain airports, making it safer to fly that day than it was to drive to the airport.
Sometimes it is better for the Pilot to do the flying than the autopilot. A case in point was during my last flight sequence flying into Kansas City (MCI) and St. Louis (STL). In both cities, the winds were very strong and gusty, over 71 mph just a couple of thousand feet above the ground, and over 40 mph at the surface. The autopilot does not handle these conditions very well, so we get to do all the work.
So the next time you are flying along, taking advantage of Southwest's low fares, enjoying a cold beverage and our award-winning Flight Attendants' gracious hospitality, and wondering who is doing the flying during the "cruising" part of your flight, it is probably the autopilot. But rest assured, there are two highly trained individuals in the first row of seats working just as hard to get you to your destination safely and as comfortably as possible.