vaccinated by Oct. 25 or within five weeks of a vaccine’s formal approval by the Food and Drug Administration, whichever came first. The timing was intended to ensure that the airline had adequate staffing for holiday travel, said Kate Gebo, who heads human resources.

This time, the unions were more resigned.

“For those 92 percent of pilots who wanted to be vaccinated, we captured $45 million in cash incentives,” said Captain Insler, whose union is challenging the decision to fire employees who don’t comply. “For those who did not want to be vaccinated, we were able to hold off a mandate for several months.”

The success of the incentives — about 80 percent of United’s flight attendants were also vaccinated by the time the airline announced its mandate in August — inspired the company to expand them to all employees, offering a full day’s pay to anyone who provided proof of vaccination by Sept. 20.

The company hadn’t surveyed its workers, but estimated that 60 to 70 percent were already vaccinated. Getting the rest there wouldn’t be easy.

Margaret Applegate, 57, a 29-year United employee who works as a services representative in the United Club at San Francisco International Airport, helps illustrate why.

Ms. Applegate normally does not hesitate to get vaccines, noting that her late father was a doctor and that her daughter does research in nutritional science.

Her daughter urged her to get vaccinated, but she remained deeply ambivalent. Friends and co-workers “were feeding me stories about horrible things happening to people with the vaccine,” she said. She worried about the relatively new technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and whether her heart condition could pose complications, though her cardiologist assured her it wouldn’t.

six employees sued United, arguing that its plans to put exempt employees on temporary leave — unpaid in many circumstances — are discriminatory. United has delayed that plan for at least a few weeks as it fights the suit.

Still, United’s vaccination rate has continued to improve. There was another rush before the deadline to receive the pay incentive and one more before the final Sept. 27 deadline. Toward the end of September, the company said 593 people had failed to comply. By Friday, the number had dropped below 240.

“I did not appreciate the intensity of support for a vaccine mandate that existed, because you hear that loud anti-vax voice a lot more than you hear the people that want it,” Mr. Kirby said. “But there are more of them. And they’re just as intense.”

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