Computer kiosks replacing greeters will save money

Imagine arriving at O’Hare International Airport upon your return from spring break. When looking for travel information, instead of being helped by the usual red-jacketed greeters, you’re helped by a computer. That’s become a reality at O’Hare. To help address the city’s budget deficit, the Daley administration recently laid off just fewer than 30 greeters — employees who were paid salaries between $38,000 and $58,000. They were replaced by computer tourism kiosks that were installed March 30.

We immediately reacted with sadness because more employees were losing their jobs. It’s a terrible and worsening trend that we hope stops soon. However, we have to look at the bigger picture here. Whether a human can actually give you more efficient service given our economic situation is very much up for argument. Both a human and a computer have valuable qualities.

A human can help you with travel tips with firsthand experience; they can relate to the customers and offer insights that a computer, at least right now, can’t grasp. While the computer cannot relate to a customer, it has all the facts the traveler needs to know. The kiosks have a touch screen and will allow travelers to access Chicago’s 2-month-old travel Web site, ExploreChicago.org. Better yet, the computer has information available in multiple languages. So while a person may be able make the experience more personal, a computer will be able to serve so many more people, and more efficiently.

In the end, the computer kiosk will provide the same services as customer service representatives. And according to city officials, this change will save about $2 million.

So while we never like to see people being laid off, it’s for reasons like saving $2 million that layoffs like these actually make sense.

O’Hare will continue to do as well as it’s always done regardless of these layoffs. Chicago-bound business travelers will continue to prefer O’Hare over Midway, and major American and international airlines will keep shuttling passengers and their money into Chicago’s economy. The airport receives more than 190,000 people traveling through each day, a number that won’t significantly decrease because computers have replaced customer service representatives. That’s a lot of business that will continue flowing through the airport, hopefully bolstering other local industries and adding more jobs in those fields.

Even more importantly, there is a possibility to create new jobs at the airport right now through $12 million in federal stimulus funds that will be used to improve a runway and taxiway. Those new jobs can make up for those lost.

We don’t want computers to take over. That’s not what this change is about. It may seem drastic for now, but replacing humans with computers does what needs to be done: it saves money.