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How does UAL's E+ seating work?

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When a friend of mine recently purchased an economy class ticket (about a month in advance) on the UAL website, the website did not let him choose a seat and did not assign him a seat at that time. He checked back a few times after that to get a seat assignment, but was unable to do so. Finally, when he checked in over the internet the day before his flight, he discovered that he had been assigned a seat in economy plus, even though he had not requested that class.

That got me to wondering. What does UAL do if I go into their website to purchase an economy class ticket, but all the seats in that class are sold out, even though there are some seats left in E+? Will they refuse to sell me a ticket? Will they seat me (or re-seat someone else who has previously purchased an economy ticket) in E+? How does that work? And is there any trick to being able to guarantee yourself an E+ seat for an economy price?

Thanks in advance.

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