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On a September Sunday in 2012, Lufthansa gave me the unwanted gift of a few extra hours in Frankfurt. As the delay and the afternoon dragged on, I could only stare longingly at the sign for the Senator Lounge (my United status then didn’t grant me access) until my flight to Dulles took off some three and a half hours late.

In one sense, that FRA-IAD leg ended some three and a half years later. That’s when Lufthansa sent me a check for $336.60 to compensate for the delay.

The refund was my right under the European Union’s “EC 261/2004” regulation, but I had no idea of it then. That rule, which requires payouts of up to €600 for delays, is a powerful tool — but also a mystery to many Americans. That’s given rise to third-party services that try to wrest compensation out of airlines for you, then take a cut of the proceeds if they win.

“Most people don’t know what they’re entitled to,” said Henrik Zillmer, CEO of perhaps the best-known such service, AirHelp, in an interview at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon.

EC 261 doesn’t always protect you

This regulation points in one and a half directions. If you fly inside the EU or from Europe to elsewhere, you’re entitled to compensation for a cancellation or a delay of more than three hours regardless of airline. But if you fly to the EU, you must be on an EU airline.

EC 261 also exempts such “extraordinary circumstances” as bad weather and air-traffic-control decisions.

Should you qualify, your payoff varies by trip length. For a flight of 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) or less, you get €250. Intra-EU flights longer than that and other flights between 1,500 and 3,500 km (2,175 miles) get €400, and longer flights get €600. A 2009 ruling, however, lets airlines halve the compensation for delays of under four hours.

EU nations set their own rules for how long you can wait to invoke EC 216. Germany allows three years, for instance, while the UK grants six.

If the airlines balk, summon help

Start with the airline that delayed you by asking specifically for EC 261 compensation — see The Points Guy’s advice from 2014. But if your request goes unanswered, consider calling in a third party such as AirHelp, EUclaimFlightright, or refund.me.

You will have to document your flight — at least the confirmation code and your ticket number, both of which you should have in e-mail if you lost the boarding pass.

Zillmer said not sending in these materials often derails a claim, while in other cases “the airline can actually prove that they’re not the reason for the delay.” He said AirHelp collects refunds in “about 60%” of cases.

If an EC 261 firm must take the airline to court, you’ll also have to sign a power-of-attorney. That step seems to improve the odds: Both AirHelp and refund.me cite a 98% success rate in court.

All four sites keep 25% of a paid claim. In August 2015, refund.me charged only 20%, which swayed my decision. But then the company never reported a resolution until the check arrived in March 2016; since it was close to half of €600, I wonder if Lufthansa decided on its own to compensate me under the 2009 ruling.

Airlines matter

Had I not flown with that Star Alliance carrier, I could have had worse luck.

“Typically, when you have the full-service carriers, they’re more prone to follow the law,” Zillmer said. “The low-cost carriers are the ones that make the most trouble.”

He cited Ryanair as particularly problematic, at least until Airhelp began suing it: “In the beginning, they only accepted claims sent by fax between noon and 2 pm on every second Friday.”

Collecting this compensation can be sufficiently tricky that it does seem worthwhile to secure expert assistance.

“We don’t specifically offer to help people with EU261 claims,” e-mailed Brett Snyder, president of the Cranky Concierge travel-assistance service (who also runs the Cranky Flier blog). “We’ve found some airlines are easier than others, but it’s never an easy experience. I suppose that’s why these companies have popped up to help in the first place.”

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