The Evolution of Commercial Pilots

An interview with a former commercial pilot about the development of the industry.

James Hennessy

July 11, 2023

Editor’s Note 

One of the most challenging obstacles in navigating the idea maze as a founder is that tech is a bubble. The overlap between tech jobs and the population of startup founders is large; many either have direct experience with tech and tech-adjacent industries, or they have people in their immediate network who do. However, industries outside of tech still account for 90% of the US GDP and at least 80% of jobs. This means that there’s a large surface area of unexplored opportunity for startups operating in the real-world economy.

Ideas for startups typically come from what founders know. At the minimum, they have to be aware that an opportunity exists to solve a problem in order to build a startup that provides a solution. The insularity of the startup ecosystem from the rest of the economy means that there is likely to be an oversupply of founders working on problems that address the needs of machine learning engineers – as an example – relative to the number of founders working on problems touching the offline parts of the economy far away from tech.

How We Work is a new interview essay series by Contrary dedicated to surfacing insights about important parts of the economy that have gone unnoticed or under-explored by the startup ecosystem. The goal is to give potential founders the ideas, inspiration, and context to expand the frontiers of technology by applying new solutions to industries and markets where they would have the greatest transformative potential. As a people-focused firm, we believe the best way to achieve that goal is by talking to individual workers who have spent their careers working in the real economy to help illuminate the industries and roles that we cover. How We Work will profile the people who power the modern world, learning their stories and the tools, systems, and processes they interact with every day.

Today, we're kicking off the series with our first entry, an interview with Peter Edwards which describes the day-to-day workings of commercial pilots, the broader trends that have changed the nature of piloting over time, and the biggest challenges that pilots today face. 


Few jobs in the modern era command as much respect as pilots do. As stewards of our interconnected, globalized era, they ferry us across oceans, over mountains, and through the invisible highways etched in the sky.

The role of the pilot has evolved significantly in the modern era. They are no longer just aviators, but also technologists who must navigate an increasingly complex landscape of automation and digital systems. The cockpit has transformed from a mechanical control center to a high-tech command hub, and pilots have been forced to adapt accordingly. 

Over the years, the job of a commercial airliner pilot has evolved from directly operating an aircraft to something more akin to a systems manager. Instead of flying a plane and making ongoing decisions about altitude, speed, and course, pilots rely on automated computer systems to handle these core tasks. Their expertise comes into play during takeoff and landing — which are both still largely manual processes — as well as making interventions due to malfunctions, inclement weather, or other unexpected events.

The shifting role of the pilot has been accompanied by changes in the labor pool. There are approximately 105,000 commercial airline pilots in the United States in 2023, a slight decline from the 108,000 who were employed ten years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic, which severely disrupted air travel in 2020 and 2021, had a substantial impact on available pilots to this day. Many pilots who were laid off or furloughed sought employment in other industries or retired early, leading to a shortage of experienced pilots available for immediate hire. Pilot training is a lengthy and expensive process. It can take years to fully train a pilot, and airlines have struggled to ramp up training programs to meet renewed demand.

This shortage of pilots has led to a contentious debate over pilot training requirements. Currently, pilots must accumulate 1,500 flight hours before receiving their certification, a mandate put in place following the 2009 Colgan Air crash. However, legislation is being considered to allow pilots to count more simulator hours towards this total, a move that proponents say will address the shortage and accelerate the training of new pilots. Opponents, including pilot unions and some lawmakers, argue this could make flying less safe, pointing to a decrease in airline fatalities since the implementation of the current requirements.

To get a first-hand account of the life of a pilot today, we spoke with a pilot who has been in the industry for over three decades, Peter Edwards. He began flying light aircraft in Papua New Guinea in the early 1980s before progressing to piloting Boeing 747 and 777s for Qantas and Cathay Pacific later in the decade. Now retired from the world of commercial aviation, he flies private jets for clients in North America.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Here are three key takeaways from our conversation:

1. Technological advances have been a huge benefit for the airline industry, but some pilots are concerned about further automation.

Automation has brought about significant improvements in safety, efficiency, and consistency in aviation. Peter describes the “dramatic” advancements in airplane technology since he began his career, but is concerned that cost-minimization is potentially pushing the industry towards riskier decisions on automation. He believes the recent drive to support single-pilot operations are a “mistake”.

Carrying forward the trend of increasing automation, airlines and regulators worldwide are contemplating having only one pilot in the cockpit of passenger jets instead of two. This goal of this would be reducing costs and mitigating crew shortages. Over 40 countries have requested the United Nations aviation body to help make single-pilot flights a reality, and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is collaborating with aircraft manufacturers to determine how such operations might work.

There is certainly a historical trend at work. In the 1950s, a typical commercial aircraft cockpit was staffed with five crew members: a captain, a co-pilot or first officer, a flight engineer, a navigator, and a radio operator. Over a few short decades, technological advances have made the roles of most flight engineers, navigators, and radio operators redundant. Automation has therefore reduced the number of active crew members at any given time to just two.

2. As pilots become more reliant on automated systems, some manual flying skills become harder to train for and test.

A significant part of a modern pilot's job is now to monitor automated systems and ensure they're working correctly. This shift from direct operation to supervising automated systems requires a different skill set, emphasizing vigilance and the ability to respond quickly and correctly to anomalies. This is in contrast to the traditional focus on manual flying skills and navigation with instruments.

Pilots, Peter says, have become “people that monitor the equipment as automation does the work” as opposed to “hands-on, seat-of-the-pants demonstrators of flying ability.” He contrasts this with his earlier experience flying light aircraft in Papua New Guinea in the early 1980s, where weather and terrain conditions were often highly challenging – a tough environment that forced pilots to sharpen their skills while relying less on technological aid.

In talking about pilots who have become overly reliant on automated systems in modern aircraft, Peter uses the term “children of the magenta line”, which was popularized by American Airlines pilot Warren Vanderburgh. The "magenta line" is a reference to the colored line on flight navigation displays that represents the aircraft's programmed autopilot route. When pilots follow this line without exercising their own judgment or understanding of the flight's mechanics, they are said to be "children of the magenta line."

While automated systems have made air travel far safer, so-called ‘loss of control’ incidents – where a plane deviates from its intended flight path and the pilot fails to recognize or correct the situation – remain the most significant cause of fatal accidents in commercial aviation. For example, the crash of Air France 447 in 2009 occurred when transient ice crystals caused the plane’s autopilot to disconnect, forcing the flight crew to intervene. In the ensuing confusion, the pilots (one of whom had little experience in manual hand-flying at altitude) made ineffectual and contradictory decisions, leading to a crash.

Peter says there have been "several dozen occasions” in his career where he has been forced to bring a plane down to the ground in challenging conditions, and expressed concern that new pilots are less prepared to take over in low-probability dangerous scenarios.

3. One of the biggest technological successes for airline pilots was dramatically reducing the number of paper logs and manuals in the cockpit.

Prior to the 2010s, all flights had to carry an extensive collection of physical documents, such as flight plans, weather reports, navigation charts, and aircraft operating manuals. This added up to fifty pounds of weight to the cabin, marginally increasing fuel costs. It also made it difficult for pilots to quickly access and organize information during critical moments.

Airlines began the shift from paper-based flight manuals to digital versions on devices like iPads during the early 2010s. By 2012, American Airlines had replaced all paper manuals with iPads in its cockpits, making it the first US airline to do so. The introduction of Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs) revolutionized the way pilots handle documentation and information management. These portable electronic devices are now used to store all necessary flight information, including digital charts, checklists, and aircraft performance data.

“They were determined to get paper out of the cockpit and they did that very effectively,” Peter said. “It was a great leap forward and a very welcome one.”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Could you tell us your personal history as a pilot, how you got into it, and the different airlines you’ve worked for?

Absolutely. Many of my colleagues actually went through the military, which is obviously a whole different ballgame. I had some college experience and then did some light aircraft flying. I did all my commercial training in Australia and then, you know, it's a bit of a cyclical industry. Job availability comes and goes.

So at that point in time, the place that most needed pilots — and constantly does — is Papua New Guinea. So I went there with very little experience, got a job with a really great company there called Talair, and flew all kinds of airplanes all over the country and around the Pacific Islands.

As you step up from type to type, the more experience you get and the bigger and better airplanes you get to fly. Increased responsibility comes with that. And then it's just pretty much the road everybody takes. As you increase experience you start sending out feelers to the bigger airlines to up your career.

I was pretty lucky, actually. I did have some great flying experience in the Pacific, Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea. I joined Air New Guinea, which was a domestic and international carrier there, so I got to fly better equipment and then moved to Qantas in the early days when they just had 747s.

I left Qantas for no particular reason other than a sense of adventure and I joined Cathay Pacific up in Hong Kong. I spent the rest of my career with them until retirement a year or so ago, and they were absolutely fantastic.

Let's start with your commercial airliner perspective. You were flying commercial for a very long time — how has the industry changed since you started?

Dramatically. Absolutely dramatically. Technology has advanced in leaps and bounds in aviation. And there's a constant argument over it.

It started with basic instrument flying. A lot of the flying I did in New Guinea, for example, is visual because of the terrain and the weather there. The progression of navigation with GPS, and how that affected the aircraft systems and the accuracy of flying, has been substantial. Pilots have very much become people that monitor the equipment as automation does the work, rather than being hands-on, seat-of-the-pants demonstrators of flying ability.

That's a big complaint with the guys that oversee the training checks these days. They’ve given it a name. You’ve probably heard this expression before: “children of the magenta line”. It refers to pilots who blindly follow automation without using the old ingrained techniques we learned through painful experiences in the early days.

Automation is great for airlines — it minimizes training to some degree and also reduces the difficulty of the selection process. Airlines can take someone straight off the street, give them a couple of hundred hours of basic training, and throw them in the airplane to manage the equipment. It’s pretty much going that way, so much so that they're actually entertaining the idea of having single pilot operators in commercial airliners at the moment.

Would you say that for the average trainee pilot coming up through the system now, it’s difficult for them to get hands-on experience in visual and instrument flying even if they wanted to — say, in learning how to fly a 747?

That’s a good question.

There's a conflict. The pilot wants to be the best they can be. I'd say that almost goes without saying. The airlines want to get [passengers] in the seat at minimal cost. So, you know, the goal is to find a happy medium there somewhere.

But, to some degree, pilots that come into a cadet scheme or choose to go that route to become commercial airline pilots will probably have to go off on their own and go get some hands-on flying [experience] in smaller aircraft at their own expense.

The airlines are very regimented. They have standard operating procedures. It allows thousands of crew to be able to turn up on any given day in a particular piece of equipment with somebody they've never flown with before and operate the airplane as if they've been flying together from the get-go.

So that kind of regimentation is essential for airlines, but it contributes to a reduction in actual hands-on flying skill across the board for pilots. And the argument these days — especially with the old fogies like me — is that while those skills are not called upon very often, we haven't eradicated the requirement for those skills completely. In my career, there have been several dozen occasions where you really had to get to grips with the airplane and manhandle the thing back onto the ground.

I think both arguments are valid. And for somebody going into a flying career, I think retaining those manual skills is an essential part of the job, actually.

If airlines decided to push forward on only requiring a single pilot for commercial flights, would that be only for shorter routes? Is it even possible for a longer flight?

Well, you know, they're playing their cards fairly close to their chest. A lot of airlines have approached the manufacturers about this — and, of course, the technology would allow it.

They could theoretically put a couple of guys on the airplane and have somebody in the bunk having a snooze for five or six hours, then switch over. It definitely works on shorter flights. There are plenty of en-route alternates if you have a problem.

I'm not sure I'm a fan when it comes to transoceanic flying. Most airlines carry three or four crew depending on the flight time. I'm not sure if it's celebrating the technology or if it's just chasing the money, but from my perspective, I think it's a mistake.

On the commercial side of things, once the plane is up in the air and pointed in the right direction — this is my layman’s way of putting it — is much of what you do just monitoring systems?

You made me laugh there with “pointing in the right direction”. There have been occasions when it wasn’t!

To your question: yes, absolutely. You're very much a systems operator at that stage. You do make en route decisions, mainly weather and air traffic control related, but sometimes performance related if you're running a bit tight on fuel, juggling levels, and getting what we call the ‘best specific ground range’ out of the aircraft.

But as far as flying the machinery, the autopilot is obviously engaged and it’s really a monitoring job at that stage. You do manipulate the controls through the autopilot system, but yeah. It can be a long night of sitting there not really doing too much.

Describe what your day-to-day looked like as a commercial pilot.

Sure. The last decade I spent most of my time flying across the Pacific — so the flight legs are sort of 13 to 15 hours non-stop Asia to the continental United States.

Much of it was night flying, so we would turn up often late in the evening. I would try and get a bit of rest during the day because it's a long flight. The disruption to circadian rhythm and jet lag plays a big part. So I would need to try and manage my rest periods pretty carefully, otherwise, I’d find myself getting more and more fatigued as I accumulated flights.

So, we’d go to work. There would be a group of us: four in my particular case when flying the 747 and the 777. There'd be four crew: a captain, two first officers, and a second officer. We’d meet an hour before departure, go through the departure paperwork, flight planning, fuel requirements — basically anything that's going to affect the trip at either end.

We would then do what is called a NOTAM — that’s ‘notice to airmen’ — to determine if there are issues with the arrival or departure airports. We’d then head out to the airplane, give it a good check-over, make sure everything's working, program the in-flight computers for the navigation logs, and off we’d go. Strap in for 15 hours.

We carry a heavy crew so we can take a break. It can be exhausting being awake all day and not getting any sleep on the airplane for 15 hours and then doing a tricky arrival at the other end in bad weather. Like in Hong Kong, where there’s quite often a typhoon going through.

The job I do now involves a bit more domestic flying, so shorter legs. Mostly four to five hour [legs] across the United States, but the airplane does go to Europe and down through central and South America as well.

The airlines have a very good in-house dispatch setup. They have professional guys doing the flight planning. They take a look at the available routes on any given day — to plan for minimum cost, usually, but they do look at things like weather, volcanic eruptions, or air traffic control disruptions over Europe. They're seeing that now with the Ukraine conflict.

The thing I’m most aware of when it comes to technological advances in aviation is at some point there was a transition from having big, thick flight books to something more digital, is that right?

Absolutely. Company manuals were required to be on board, [and they] would probably fill a suitcase. You were looking at fifty pounds of manuals — everything from the performance requirements for the airplane to operating procedures.

We also carried a thing called a minimum equipment list on board. If you're at an outport somewhere and something breaks or a piece of equipment isn’t functioning correctly, we can look it up and see if it's okay to dispatch without it. It also had all the considerations that would affect performance or the route that we're planning on flying.

They woke up one day and said, "Hey guys, you know, it’s a bit of pain lugging this stuff around and even more of a pain correcting it.” All the instrument approach charts that we used to carry for the entire world — if you can imagine that — all had to be manually updated, and that was a real drag.

So some years back they introduced electronic flight books to the aircraft. Some of them are part of the aircraft structure — as in they're hardwired into the airplane system — whereas a lot of airlines gave their pilots individual iPads. We access the company website and all of the data is automatically uploaded pre-flight.

So we do check it. But yeah, it's a much better system. Welcome to the digital age. They were determined to get paper out of the cockpit and they did that very effectively. It was a great leap forward and a very welcome one.

One thing I’m curious about is communication. Obviously it’s very formalized in the aviation sector — talking to the ground when you're up in the air, for example — but how do you communicate within your organization aside from that? Is it email, is it Microsoft Teams, is it Slack?

They do have in-house electronic communications. Like I said, they're getting away from paper. The airline companies I've flown for had some very basic accounts as far as pilots and employees go. Obviously, we have to have immediate communications on the airplane with the company in case we have mechanical issues or diversions or whatever and that's all taken care of. We had satellite communications around the globe.

Having said that, the company I work for now — I think my last app count was 14. So we have Slack, I'll get Gmail messages, and there are WhatsApp accounts for trips. There are messages flying in all directions. It's a little bit of overkill I think. They're all valuable tools, but how many do you need?

The only other big question I had is also about the evolution of your time across the industry. I would imagine that compliance and regulatory safety stuff have become significantly more stringent over your long career?

That's a good question actually. I'm not 100% sure that I would say it's more stringent. In fact, the rules and regulations as they're written today are steeped in a lot of painful historical lessons.

I think they've morphed into a focus on safety, especially from the regulatory aspect of it. I think what's happening with the fact that airspace is becoming very much more congested is that the regulatory oversight for crew training and aircraft equipment — say when operating across the North Atlantic for argument’s sake — is extremely stringent, and it's a bit of a work in progress.

So you have several regulatory authorities dipping their toe into the same pond. So the EU, the FAA, people controlling the airspace in the Atlantic — which is extremely busy — all have a different idea to some extent on how things should be done. But they're getting on top of that very quickly, overseen by the EU to a large part.

So the regulatory requirements are stringent, but I would have to say that they pretty much always have been. It's just that with technology – and jamming more people into the airspace – there's probably a little bit more to it than there used to be.

Even going back to the early days in New Guinea, the requirements laid down to be able to just operate in the country were pretty strict, actually. And the oversight was pretty good, I have to say. Australia is a whole different ballgame, of course. Qantas was and is to this day probably one of the best legacy carriers on the planet — a fantastic airline, and Cathay Pacific was the same way. So it wasn't just the oversight from the regulatory people, but the airlines themselves had some very strict and stringent standards.

We've spoken a lot about the commercial side of things, is there anything else you'd say about the private aviation world that we haven't touched on? I know you talked about how you had your hour-long safety briefings in the commercial world and all these different things you have to go through, very systematized. Is it different flying private?

Obviously, at the commercial airline level, you know, that's the top of the pile as far as performance goes. The further away from that you get, the more oversight can be lacking — particularly in some countries. Operators are less scrupulous about maintenance. It can get a bit chunky for want of a better word.

That said, at the jet level and especially with intercontinental standards, the training and the licensing is pretty strict. So apart from regulatory oversight, as I said, people that operate hundred-million-dollar airplanes want to make sure their guys are doing it properly. But for sure, yeah, I've seen a few examples of people cutting corners. I’ve seen some interesting operations.

I should take a moment to defend New Guinea actually, because the opportunity was there to break the rules. And quite often you'd have to bend them severely just by virtue of the terrain, the low-performance capability of the airplanes, and the location of the airstrips. So, you know, the pilots that persevered and had cut their teeth up there several years of flying single pilot operations without GPS in the early days. I take my hats off to them because some of the guys I know are really superb operators.

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