NEW YORK — Loews Hotels CEO Jonathan Tisch called on the hotel and tourism industry to tackle what he calls one of the next defining challenges: repair and restoration of the country’s crumbling infrastructure, starting with the air transportation system but also including roads, bridges, tunnels and public transportation.

Kicking off this week’s New York University International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference at the Times Square Marriott Marquis, Tisch acknowledged that the disparate components of the tourism industry — everyone from airlines to rental cars to retail to hotels — were able to unite to spur passage of the Tourism Promotion Act and creation of the Corporate for Tourism Promotion. He believes it’s time to harness that ecumenical spirit again to face this even greater challenge.

“Over the next decade, an estimated two billion people will be able to afford international travel, most of them from the rising economies of China, India, Brazil and Russia,” he told the 1,900 hospitality executives in attendance. “But let’s be honest, at this moment of incredible opportunity the process of traveling is becoming more stressful, less convenient and more nerve-wracking.”

His top priority is the aviation system, both the condition of the nation’s airports (which he likened to “an extended visit to the DMV”) and the efficiency of the air traffic system. Delays, for example, are irritating to travelers but also carry an economic cost, says Tisch.

He cited a recent study that claims delays at New York’s three airports cost the regional economy more than $2.6 billion in 2008, a cost that will rise to $79 billion in the next 14 years.

He urged the hospitality industry to champion the FAA’s NextGen air space system, which would rely on satellite, GPS and digital communications technology to improve flight management. The FAA says the new approach could reduce delays by 35%, save 1.4 billion gallons of fuel and generate $23 billion in economic benefits, not to mention increased satisfaction among air travelers.

“But the issue is not confined to airports,” he continued. “The entire infrastructure that transports travelers from home to airport and from airport to final destination is seriously lacking.”

Tisch called for major technology-based improvements in the country’s roadways and public transportation systems, and while he conceded that solving the problem is beyond the capabilities of the tourism industry to solve alone, he added. “The price of failure is even higher.” Another study he referenced claims that in 2008 some 41 million people avoided traveling due to frustrations with the travel process.

Tisch, a long-time proponent of the power of partnerships, believes unified public/private, local/federal collaborations are one of several approaches to overcoming these challenges. One proposal, America Fast Forward, could encourage local communities to dedicate tax revenues to transportation projects that would be backed by low-interest bonds and loans from the federal government.

This plan may be part of upcoming transportation legislation in Congress and already has bi-partisan support, as well as backing by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO. Another, even more innovative proposal would create a national infrastructure bank that would leverage traditional public funding with private investment from pension funds, private equity and sovereign wealth funds.

“Tackling the infrastructure challenge will require dozens of innovative ideas like this,” he concluded. “It will require new partnerships between government at all levels and private stakeholders. It requires a new mindset where we start treating infrastructure as the long-term public/private investment it is, rather than just an expense.”