A tunable diode laser (TDL) temperature sensor is designed, constructed, tested, and demonstrated in the exhaust of an industrial gas turbine. Temperature is determined from the ratio of the measured absorbance of two water vapor overtone transitions in the near infrared where telecommunication diode lasers are available. Design rules are developed to select the optimal pair of transitions for direct absorption measurements using spectral simulations by systematically examining the absorption strength, spectral isolation, and temperature sensitivity to maximize temperature accuracy in the core flow and minimize sensitivity to water vapor in the cold boundary layer. The contribution to temperature uncertainty from the spectroscopic database is evaluated and precise line-strength data are measured for the selected transitions. Gas-temperature measurements in a heated cell are used to verify the sensor accuracy (over the temperature range of 350 to 1000 K, ΔT∼2 K for the optimal line pair and ΔT∼5 K for an alternative line pair). Field measurements of exhaust-gas temperature in an industrial gas turbine demonstrate the practical utility of TDL sensing in harsh industrial environments.