A lifeline for airline workers is ending. Some have already moved on.

Tens of thousands of airline workers are bracing for a wave of furloughs that could begin as soon as Thursday, when a ban on broad layoffs that was a condition of federal aid comes to an end. The cuts will be painful, but they could have been worse.

For months, airlines have asked employees to volunteer for pay cuts, extended leaves, buyouts or early retirement in order to help preserve as many jobs as possible. Tens of thousands signed up.

Steven Ray Littles II, a young Delta flight attendant, took a buyout because he didn’t want to leave his future to chance. Mike Stoica, a mechanic at American Airlines, decided to do the same to secure health care benefits for his wife. Tina Jackson, a 56-year-old reservations agent at Alaska Airlines, retired early so that she might help save a colleague’s job.

“When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us,” she said.

The industry had hoped to avoid, or at least delay, this reckoning and its chances seemed good. Workers in recent weeks had successfully lobbied lawmakers to renew the $25 billion in payroll assistance that they provided passenger airlines under the CARES Act in March, garnering bipartisan support in Congress and the president’s approval. But broader talks stalled.

There is still a chance that a bill may pass, but the parties remain far apart on a price tag.

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