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A federal appeals court Thursday ordered Eastern Air Lines Inc. to rehire pilots who went on strike against the air carrier last year in a bitter labor dispute.

The ruling could force Eastern to offer jobs to 800 pilots before the airline resorts to replacement workers that it hired and began to train during the strike, according to the Air Line Pilots Association, the pilots' union.

In its ruling, the three-member appeals court panel said, "Eastern is obligated under the Railway Labor Act to reinstate returning pilot-strikers prior to awarding pilot positions to new hire pilots."

Eastern said it will appeal the decision.

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