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when are seats released for frequent flyer "purchase"?

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Several months ago, we tried using our United miles for flights on Star Alliance partner Air Canada and were told all seats were booked. But we could see, on-line, that there were loads of empty seats. When I asked if more seats would be released closer to the flight date, the operator said yes. Air Canada clearly wants to wait to see if they could sell the seats first before giving them over to United FF members.
Is there any "magic" date after which this happens? Or is there any way to track this on-line? Basically I'm looking for an alternative to calling every day.
Thanks for the help!

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